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Helicopter Pulled From East River As NTSB Launches Investigation Into Fatal Crash

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Crews on Monday successfully recovered the helicopter involved in a fatal crash that left five dead after slamming into the East River Sunday night.

Crews used an Army Corps of Engineers boat with a crane attached to it to hoist the helicopter from the water and load it onto the deck.

Police have identified all five victims. They are 26-year-old Brian McDaniel, a firefighter from Dallas; 34-year-old Daniel Thompson; 29-year-old Tristian Hill; 26-year-old Trevor Cadigan; and 29-year-old Carla Vallejos Blanco.

CBS2 sources have identified the pilot as 33-year-old Richard Vance of Danbury, Conn. He survived, and told police that a passenger's harness had caught on the emergency fuel kill switch.

By the time he noticed, the pilot couldn't restart the engine.

According to the FAA, he is a certified helicopter pilot and instructor. His LinkedIn profile says he has worked for Liberty Helicopters for almost two years and has prior experience flying choppers with another company in Connecticut.

According to the FAA, there are no previous reported incidents with the aircraft involved in Sunday's crash or with its pilot.

Sources told CBS2 only one of the two flotation devices on the skids of the helicopter deployed. The other failed, sources said, causing the helicopter to sink.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. Anyone who may have witnessed the crash is being urged to contact investigators.

PHOTOS: Helicopter Pulled From East River

The owners of the helicopter, Liberty Helicopters, have had two previous crashes. Both were in the Hudson River.

One was in 2007 where everyone survived and another was in 2009, when of their choppers collided with a small plane, killing nine people.

The tour company that apparently chartered the Liberty helicopter put out a statement on their Instagram page.

"NY on Air is terribly saddened to acknowledge that its customers were passengers on the Liberty Helicopters flight that went down in the East River last night. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this tragic event. NY on Air is fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB in their investigation and those agencies should be referred to for any further information."

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York is calling on the FAA to issue an emergency order to suspend Liberty Helicopters from flying pending a review of the crash and safety measures.

The pilot's call for help Sunday can be heard in radio transmissions posted to moments before cell phone video captured the chopper plunging into the water around 7 p.m. Sunday near East 90th Street.

"Mayday, mayday, mayday," the pilot says. "We've got an engine failure over the East River."

After the impact, the helicopter's rotors can be seen continuing to spin until it went completely underwater.

"It kind of looked like it was supposed to be landing almost, so I wasn't really sure," said witness Brianna Jesme. "And then the moment we saw it land, it was under."

A private tugboat was the first to reach the helicopter, which is owned by Liberty Helicopters and was chartered for a photo shoot.

"We did what we could to help the situation especially when we found out there was people in it," tugboat crew member James Morrison said. By the time he and the rest of the crew reached the helicopter it had already flipped over.

Police, fire and Coast Guard boats quickly followed, but the chopper had already begun to sink.

Authorities say the pilot managed to free himself, but his five passengers, who were attached in place aboard the aircraft, were trapped.

"The five people besides the pilot were all tightly harnessed," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Sunday. "The harnesses had to be cut and removed in order to free them from the helicopter, which was upside down at the time."

Nigro said the water temperature and conditions made it difficult for divers to get to the victims.

"They worked very quickly as fast as they could," he said. "It's 50 feet of water there. There was a 4-mile an hour current and the temperature was below 40, so everyone worked very hard. It's a great tragedy."

Two of the passengers pulled out were pronounced dead at the scene. The other three were rushed to area hospitals in critical condition but later died.

Even though Morrison and his crew saved at least one life, he says they prayed for a better outcome.

"I wish it would have ended differently and my condolences to the families and everyone involved," he said. "It was horrible."

The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

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