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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Tourist Helicopter Collides with Small Plane Over Hudson River

Aired August 8, 2009 - 13:22   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

You are looking at live pictures right now outside of Hoboken, New Jersey, because a search and rescue mission is under way, a sizable one.

We understand, as CNN confirms through variable sources, the FAA as well as sources in the New York/New Jersey area, that a helicopter, a tourist helicopter collided with a small plane there and many eyewitnesses who joined us throughout the last half hour described various things. These two aircrafts colliding and simply swirling and twirling into the Hudson River there rescue teams were on their way to respond.

According to one eyewitness, she says there was nothing buoyant. It didn't appear as though any remnants of the aircraft or even the helicopter were at the surface of that water. Divers have been seen descending into the water trying to find signs of life. At least six people may have been onboard that tourist helicopter. It's unclear how many may have been onboard that small aircraft.

Joining us is Scott Schuman, who was actually walking in the vicinity there with family members, heard this loud bang and then saw this twist of these two aircrafts descend into the water.

Scott, give me an idea of what you are seeing now.

SCOTT SCHUMAN, PLANE CRASH WITNESS: Right now, I see a bunch of boats in the water. There seems to be less police folks looking around there. I don't see much out of the water right now.

WHITFIELD: Describe for me again earlier today, I did a thumbnail sketch of what you saw earlier when you were walking out with family. You heard the loud bang and then you actually saw these two aircraft making its way into the water, right?

SCHUMAN: Yeah. We were just walking along the river. Heard the crash, looked straight up and saw -- first thing I saw was a plane with only one wing on it twirly-birding its way down into the river. It had brown smoke coming out of the back of it and made a loud and big splash when it hit. Maybe a couple seconds later we saw the helicopter with debris kind of flying off of it. Almost fluttering and then that crashed into the water, as well. After we did see debris landing and falling in Hoboken up the street from us.

WHITFIELD: It's not uncommon. You live in the area, not uncommon especially on the weekend to see some of these tourist aircraft in the area. It certainly is something a lot of people partake in to get a chance to see the New York City area, tri-city area in a different way. The helicopter belonged to liberty helicopter sight-seeing tours. According to the New York Port Authority, we are getting information a small plane did land at the Teterboro Airport near where you are and picked up a customer or maybe two and picked off about 11:54. It's unclear whether that is the aircraft that collided with this helicopter.

Give me an idea how common a sight it is to see a small aircraft as well as helicopters in the area?

SCHUMAN: We were right across the river from all the New York City tourists where the helicopters take off all the time. Especially on the weekend with the tourists that come in. As you mentioned with Teterboro airport as well as New York City airports having planes fly overhead is normal. That's why when we heard that loud crash, originally it could have been a jet engine or something, but it sounded louder and more like a bang and normal. That made us look up and see them start falling into the Hudson River.

WHITFIELD: Earlier when we spoke, you said it was a matter of minutes before you started to see these search and rescue boat and other search and rescue helicopters in the air responding to the scene, right?

SCHUMAN: Yeah. Absolutely. The minute it hit in the water we saw boats already in the water start turning their course and heading straight for the crash. The police officers here in Hoboken immediately went into action. We heard them on the radio. Sirens flying by and trying to get as close to the river as possible. It really did remind me what happened several months ago with miracle on the Hudson when the plane went in and the boats instantly went over to do as much search and rescue as possible.

WHITFIELD: When I look at our images we have up on the screen right there. You cannot see it, but I count about 12 boats in the water there. It's unclear whether those are all search and rescue or are they mixed in with leisure boats in the area? On the weekends, it's not uncommon to see leisure boats on the Hudson.

SCHUMER: From here I see a lot of smaller boats. I would assume, obviously I can't tell from where I am, I assume those are just leisure boats out in the river getting closer. Obviously you have the Coast Guard and police boats with their lights on flashing kind of, almost like setting up a perimeter in the water to not allow certain people in there. I believe I see a tugboat or large yellow boat. I don't know if you see that on your screen. I'm assuming that's what's trying to pull anything out of the water.

WHITFIELD: Since you've been there in the past hour, you've seen nothing pulled out, not in the form of debris?

SCHUMAN: I have not personally seen anything pulled out, no.

WHITFIELD: Scott Schuman, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it. SCHUMAN: Thanks a lot.

WHITFIELD: We'll have much more straight ahead on this emergency situation taking place off Hoboken, New Jersey. A number of helicopters and a small plane (AUDIO GAP). A tourist helicopter as well as a small plane colliding in the air and depending into the water as a number of search and rescue teams are there trying to find any of the people who may have survived this kind of collision. Much more straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: An intense search and rescue mission underway there right between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manhattan in the Hudson River. Why? Because a mid-air collision took place just after noon time between a tourist helicopter and a small aircraft. It's believed as many as six people were onboard the tourist helicopter.

And according to the U.S. Coast Guard also responding there on the scene, saying that one person actually has been rescued. And the New York City Fire Department officials are also on the scene saying there appear to be fatalities.

Our Susan Candiotti is joining us via broadband. She's there right off the shoreline of the Hudson River. What can you see, what do you know, Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, right now, I'm going to bring you an eyewitness who was here, Colin Rich. Rich was at a park that is right here along the Hudson River when just before noon, he saw something horrific happen before your eyes.

Tell our audience what you saw.

COLIN RICH, CRASH WITNESS: We had a plane and a helicopter both flying southbound over the Hudson. The plane actually kind of rolled up towards New Jersey, heading in that direction and rolled into the side of the helicopter. The helicopter immediately ceased function. The rotors came off and it plunged about 1,100 feet into the water. The plane continued to travel towards the -- basically over the water towards the W Hotel and plunged into the water after -- you know, about 1,100 feet fall.

CANDIOTTI: What was going through your mind as you saw this, Colin?

RICH: Very, very excited (ph). Honestly, at the point I just couldn't even believe it. So, I still kind of can't, so.

CANDIOTTI: Still, you have -- you're certainly shaken by this. How long would you say it took before you saw some rescue people come into the site?

RICH: At the moment, we had Circle Line was on spot within 30 seconds. They turned around and headed in that direction. CANDIOTTI: And that's a tour boat, correct?

RICH: Yes, that is a tour boat. They were the first ones on site. We had emergency personnel and helicopters over there probably within four, five minutes.

CANDIOTTI: Were you able to see anyone being pulled out of the water? We do have a report from the Coast Guard that there is at least one person who has been pulled from the water rescue.

RICH: It's reassuring to hear that, but I didn't see anything like that.

CANDIOTTI: Did you take pictures of this?

RICH: Yes, I do have some pictures.

CANDIOTTI: Because you're a professional photographer?

RICH: Yes. Correct.

CANDIOTTI: What sticks out in your mind from what you saw?

RICH: Everything about this is quite shocking. I mean, that's -- you know, seeing something like that right in front of you is just incredible. Tragic.

CANDIOTTI: I'm sure it will stay with you for the rest of your life. Thank you very much for telling us about what you saw.

So again, we have information that at least one person, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, has been pulled from the water. We also understand that the small plane is registered to a company in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. We're looking into that. And as we indicated earlier, the helicopter evidently belongs to a tour company called Liberty Tours. And naturally, we're checking for more information about that.

It appears though the small plane, according to an FAA spokesperson and the New York Port Authority, did take off from the Teterboro Airport which handles private planes, shortly before noon. It is presumed at this time that that is the plane. The airport lost contact with that small aircraft described as a red plane. Colin I believe saying it's a red and white aircraft.

And so, naturally, we're seeing a lot of activity here. The U.S. Coast Guard has at least one boat on site and other assets as well as they try to rescue whoever they can find from the water as well as pick up debris eventually, when that happens, as well -- Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: And Susan, at the top of your live broadcast here, we were able to hear the chopper activity overhead. Are you able to tell whether the choppers that are as part of being used as part of this rescue mission, are they using any apparatus, ropes or anything being descended into the water to help in any pulling of debris or help perhaps in the rescue of that one person that we understand has been rescued?

CANDIOTTI: Fredricka, not that I can see at this time. There are simply -- I can only see one helicopter at this time circling overhead. But of course, this is going to be an operation, from experience, that is going to take quite some time as they figure out what they have in the water.

Naturally, they'll have boats up at the site to try to retrieve any debris that they can, if those boats are big enough and if they have the right apparatus. Of course, that's going to take quite some doing to pick the debris out of the water. And of course, at this time, we can't even see anything on the water's surface. Naturally, it may have sunk by now. So, that will involve of course big cranes or bringing other types of machinery and mechanisms to try to bring the wreckage from the bottom of the Hudson River here.

And just to give you a better sense of where we are, there is a park here along the Hudson. We're in sort of the downtown area of Manhattan along the Hudson, just across the river from us Hoboken, New Jersey, and Teterboro is in that general vicinity. So, if indeed that's the plane that took off from Teterboro, wouldn't have far to go before coming over here across the Hudson.

And as we all know as well, it is very, very common for helicopters, tour helicopters to take off from this general vicinity on short tours, longer tours, tours of Manhattan. You can see the Statue of Liberty at a distance from where I am now, we're not far from Liberty Island, as well. And it's naturally attracting a lot of people who are standing by to see and watch the activity as we speak with witnesses and find others who are here to see exactly what's going on.

Actually, from this spot, I can't see much of an operation except that you heard Colin say that it was within moments that one of the ferries that constantly runs back and forth between New Jersey and Manhattan was on the scene. He said to him, it appeared to be within 30 seconds. And I also have a report that within five minutes after this happened, you have the Coast Guard arriving on scene. Of course, before even that, you had the New York Police Department and Fire Department also appearing on site.

We have information from another eyewitness report seeing a diver drop down from the helicopter into the water within minutes after this happened. And so, as usual, there is a very quick response by the New York City Police Department and Fire Department, as well as Coast Guard and other private entities such as the ferry boats that operate regularly between Manhattan and New Jersey that were on the scene very, very quickly here.

The question, of course, is whether they will be able to retrieve anything from the water. We're getting conflicting reports about that. But at least now, we have confirmation from an official agency that at least one person has been pulled from the water.

WHITFIELD: And likely air space has been closed down in that general vicinity except for rescue mission choppers? CANDIOTTI: That wouldn't be unusual. That's a standard operating procedure to clear all other aircraft from the area and certainly, we have seen none other than helicopters flying overhead.

WHITFIELD: All right, Susan Candiotti, thanks so much for that update. We'll check back with you momentarily and we'll also take a short break and bring you the very latest on this search and rescue mission under way.

Again, just to underscore if you're just now joining us, a collision, a mid-air collision between a tourist helicopter and a small plane taking place there right between Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, right there over the Hudson River. An intense search and rescue mission is now underway trying to find any survivors. Already one person has actually been rescued. We don't have any more details other than that.

But much more straight ahead right here from the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: All right, this breaking story we're following for you right between Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey. You're looking at emergency crews right there on the ground. There because over the Hudson River, a mid-air collision took place involving a tourist helicopter which is believed six people may have been onboard and a small aircraft colliding in mid-air there.

Eyewitness accounts have given us so many different views of what transpired there. Some say they heard a loud boom and they saw these two aircraft simply twisted together and then descending into the water. Others say that they also saw during this collision one of the wings from this aircraft simply being sheared off.

And within minutes, emergency crews got underway, trying to get to anyone they may have been able to rescue. We do understand according to a New York Fire Department, one person actually has been rescued. We don't know the condition of that person. We also received this press release from the U.S. Coast Guard.

So many different agencies are involved in this search and rescue mission right now. The Coast Guard saying many agencies have responded, including five marine units, you've got the New York City Fire Department, as well as New York Police Department, which has provided its divers that have already descended into the water to try and get a hold of any of the people involved here.

This collision took place near Pier 40. If you know anything about New York City, this is kind of lower Manhattan. Our Susan Candiotti was on the shoreline there and also did a great job describing exactly what you're able to see: Liberty Island, Statue of Liberty, very close to this collision.

And as you see in these new images that we're getting from New York 1, it has attracted a huge crowd of people. A beautiful Saturday midday there in Manhattan. A lot of people who are out walking about. We've heard from some eyewitnesses who just simply were taking a stroll there and heard the big bang and also saw the collision of these planes. And now, it has also attracted a number of people who are now watching an active intense rescue and search mission underway.

John Wiley is a retired commercial pilot, he's also a contributor for Aviation Week magazine. He's on the phone with us now. We reached out to you, John, because you're very familiar with this area. We do understand according to Liberty Tours which is where the helicopter originated, that the small aircraft may have also taken off shortly before this collision from Teterboro Airport, which is a reliever airport where mostly small planes, private aircraft land and take off.

What do you know about this general vicinity and what kind of air traffic we usually see midday on a Saturday?

JOHN WILEY, RETIRED COMMERCIAL PILOT: Well, any day that ends in the letter Y is going to be a busy day in the New York corridor. It doesn't matter if it's Monday or Saturday. You have a lot of traffic that's going to be going into the reliever airports. You have Newark, you have Teterboro, which is used by general aviation and business jets. There are numerous other small airports.

This corridor going up the East River, at one time there was a proposal to close the corridor. There have been acts to lower the envelope so that -- previously, I think airplanes were allowed to fly as high as 3,000 feet up and down the corridor. It's very obviously a picturesque area that you can see a lot of the New York area in.

But the problem that you've got is almost in any vehicle that you're in, airplane or helicopter, you're going to have certain blind spots. And from the information that I received in just a little bit of time that I've done the research on this, it appears that both vehicles were moving in the same direction. So, a possible overtake could have created a blind spot for one of the vehicles not to see the other.

WHITFIELD: Yes, one eyewitness said that they were both flying southbound.

WILEY: Well, anything that's under your nose of the aircraft is going to be invisible to you. And you're not going to be doing that much maneuvering left and right or banking because you have a relatively narrow corridor that you have to stay within. So, people are probably going to be looking outside at the skyline of New York. I imagine it's a beautiful day up there from the video that I've seen of it. And then, you have two airplanes in proximity which just doesn't work.

WHITFIELD: And we do hear from our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras that it's a clear day, whether or not likely a factor here. Of course, when Jacqui is available, we'll be able to get perhaps kind of the wind speed or whether -- you know, sometimes wind might be a factor in investigations of aviation accidents such as this.

We're learning a little bit more about the aircraft. John, real quickly, Piper PA-32. What can you tell me about that?

WILEY: ...at my dossier and figure out exactly what a 32 is. I imagine it's a small single-engineer craft. But my aviation buddies are going to hammer me if I get it wrong. So, I'll just defer, but a great day, no doubt if they came out of Teterboro. They were going to be up just having a great day looking out. The fortunate thing, if there is a fortunate thing about this, is that we do have one survivor who's going to be better than any cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder.

WHITFIELD: Which is pretty extraordinary. And John, we're looking at an image right now of a Piper PA-32. I'm pretty much a novice on aircraft. I'm not really sure what it would mean, this type of aircraft besides the fact that it's a very small one. Your estimation on how many people might be aboard a PA-32?

WILEY: Again, hang on for just a second while I pull up ...

WHITFIELD: Or I should give you a little time -- I'll give you time to look that up, John, because I ...

WILEY: PA-32, they're probably -- yes, I'm looking at it now. PA-32, possibly four people onboard. You have some extra windows back there. Maybe as many as six.

WHITFIELD: Yes, OK. All right, thanks so much. Sorry for putting you on the spot like that. We're just getting this information as it comes in. I'm going to give you a little bit of a moment there. Maybe there's more that you can learn about this aircraft or even the helicopter once we learn a little more about it. We do know that at least six people may have been onboard that tourist helicopter. John Wiley, thanks so much.

Meantime, an eyewitness that is joining us on the phone, Arnold Stevens. Arnold, give me an idea. Were you in the area at the time of this collision?

ARNOLD STEVENS, CRASH WITNESS: I was actually at the W Hotel which is right on the water. I was out on my balcony and we heard a loud crash. Then, looked out and we saw a plane -- looked like a very small Cessna sort of plane. Looked like half the wing was missing. It was corkscrewing into the river. And we saw the helicopter drop like a rock into the Hudson. And probably -- maybe six minutes later, there were boats surrounding the two collision areas looking for, I guess, any survivors.

WHITFIELD: That's very consistent with what some other eyewitnesses have mentioned too, that when they saw the small aircraft, that it appeared as though one of the wings had simply been sheared off as you describe in this corkscrewing once the two collided.

Within minutes, you saw the search and rescue teams descending on the area trying to find any survivors. We do understand from the New York Fire Department that one person actually has been rescued. Did you happen to see anything that appeared to be a rescue taking place, pulling anyone out of the water?

STEVENS: Absolutely. We saw -- yes, obviously about six or seven minutes later, we saw I guess maybe a Coast Guard helicopter descend very quickly, maybe -- I don't know, 50 feet above the water. Two men dropped into the water and on a -- I'm presuming it was some sort of rescue operation.

I did not see anybody actually being rescued, but there was definitely a rescue operation. The first rescuers were actually not police or Coast Guard, but were actually surrounding boats, commercial boats, type of boats that ran to the scene immediately after the crash. Certainly anybody within the vicinity heard it and ran to it.

WHITFIELD: Arnold Stevens, thanks so much for your eyewitness account there at the W Hotel, which is where you were staying. You're on your balcony. We heard you describe the W Hotel being very close in proximity to exactly where this took place in the Hudson River. Also not far from Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty is.

Beautiful day there in lower Manhattan. And certainly, a lot of people out enjoying the weather and then, seeing this horrible event of a mid-air collision between a small aircraft, what we now know to be a Piper PA-32. We just heard John Wiley, who's a retired commercial pilot, say it's a small fixed wing aircraft that could carry as many as four to six people. But still, we don't know who may have been on that aircraft.

And we understand the helicopter belonged to the Liberty Tours organization. And they have confirmed with CNN that six people may have been on board that chopper. And that collision taking place just in the noon Eastern hour now. A massive search-and-rescue mission underway to try to find anymore survivors. One person we understand has indeed been rescued.

Much more straight ahead here from the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta.

You're looking at live pictures right now because a search and rescue mission is underway there in the Hudson River, just between Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, because of a mid-air collision between a helicopter and a small aircraft. It's believed that on the helicopter, there may have been six people on board. The U.S. Coast Guard says one person has actually been rescued, but it's unclear the condition of that person who has been rescued, plucked from the waters of the Hudson there.

You're looking at different images there. In the upper left-hand side of the screen, you're actually seeing a lot of people who have converged at the location, the helipad of Liberty Tours. That's the place where the helicopter actually took off from. And that company is confirming that its aircraft was involved in this collision.

On the upper right hand and lower, of course, you're seeing different views of the Hudson River. A number of jurisdictions are involved here, New York, New Jersey, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, all involved. You've got marine units there. You've got New York Police Department divers that have also descended into the water to look for any people, any survivors of this crash. You've got the New York City Fire Department involved as well.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a recent conversation with one of its petty officers with CNN, saying that it has three response boats searching the Hudson River. Again, only one person has been rescued. Unclear the condition of that person. No other victims have been recovered at this time. But they continue to search tirelessly there in the Hudson River for any potential survivors.

Eyewitness Arnold Stevens was with us just a moment ago. He's actually staying at the W Hotel which has the perfect view of the search and rescue. And you also sadly, Arnold, had the perfect view of this mid-air collision between these two aircrafts.

So once again, give me an idea what you saw. You were on the balcony enjoying the great weather there in lower Manhattan. And then, you saw this collision.

STEVENS: Yes, that's right. I was out on the balcony, it's a gorgeous day, it was partly cloudy. And heard this crash. People started screaming. I looked out and there was a plane with half the wing missing, corkscrewing into the ground -- I'm sorry, into the water. And then, the helicopter just dropped like a rock.

And there was debris. And the debris disseminated over a period of maybe 20 minutes. And now, you really can't see any debris, at least from the balcony. But I happen to be directly across from the collision site, I would say no more than maybe 300 yards. It was just spectacular and it was surreal to see it.

WHITFIELD: And the search and rescue mission still underway. While the U.S. Coast Guard says they have rescued one person, it's unclear how they'll manage to get a hold of anyone else. And it's also unclear exactly how many people may have been involved. But we understand the number to be at least six. Arnold Stevens, thanks so much for your account. I know we'll be checking back with you momentarily.

Meantime, we've been hearing from eyewitnesses all morning long since this collision took place just after noontime. Our Josh Levs has also been hearing from you in lots of different ways, via iReports. People are sending in their images and other accounts of what they have seen -- Josh?

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fred, we've gotten our first iReports now about this. We've been getting some iReports actually from people who were at the scene, some people who are seeing what it's like right now.

We're going to zoom right into the computer behind me. I want to start to show you a series of photos that we've gotten from our iReporter Jim Davidson (ph), and what we're going to see -- he actually lives in Hoboken and he has been seeing some of the aftermath in that area.

You can see people gathering out in the area over there. You can see -- you know, it looks like, if you're taking a look here, it looks relatively calm. But you can see crowds gathering to check out what is happening. People looking for anything that even might have fallen on the ground.

He tells us that when he heard it, at first he thought it was like a car crash, it was some sort of accident there. And he didn't realize what it was based on the sound until word got out. And a lot of people ran over. You can see here the crowd starting to rush over there.

Also, I was just on Twitter, and it's one of the top topics on Twitter right now. There's a Twitterer named ziggfather, relatively new to Twitter it looks like, who says that he is actually seeing it himself. He talks about the rescue helicopters being there. He says "just watched a helicopter blow and plummet into the Hudson River. Emergency vehicles on site." I know those words are pretty small on your screen. But it sounds like that's what he's seeing himself.

And Fred, we've actually gotten another iReport from this area as well from David Thompson. So, we're sending out the word right now. If you are among the people who is seeing it and you can safely send us one of your iReports, go ahead: ireport.com. It's really easy to upload your photos, your videos, your stories. Just tell us what we're seeing. We then give you a call and make sure that you've actually seen it as well.

And Fred, we're monitoring Twitter, we're monitoring Facebook. Now, I'll tell everyone right now if you have seen this, if you're aware, if it's impacting you in some way, my pages, Facebook and Twitter, /joshlevsCNN.

Fred, I'm going to stay right here and keep updating you with everything as it comes in.

WHITFIELD: All right, Josh. Thank so much. Appreciate that.