Collision over Hudson interrupts idyllic day
On bicycles, roller blades and walking, they became witnesses to a catastrophe that ended nine lives on a crystal clear, sunny August weekend.
Liza Meneades was heading to a Greenwich Village pier about noon to snack on some pineapple and sun herself by the river, which was teeming with pleasure craft.
At the West 30th Street heliport, a group of five Italians boarded a Liberty Tours chopper for the highlight of their New York visit. It would be a scenic tour over the city.
They took off, rising over the Hudson, and turned south over the water.
Then suddenly, a muffled explosion.
What she saw, in the air over the Hudson, was hard to believe: a helicopter propeller clipping off the wing of a small white plane. The broken wing fell into the water with a puff of smoke. Both aircraft then plummeted into the river.
She said the little plane spiraled down "like a top would spin, but heading down nose first."
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," she repeated over and over, she said later. "It happened so quickly. They crashed and fell within 20 seconds or less."
On the other side of the river, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Hilda Igartua was relaxing as her husband fished from a pier on Frank Sinatra Drive. Suddenly, in their view — disaster.
"I wasn't sure what I was seeing. I thought, 'Oh my God. I have to call 911,'" she said, referring to the emergency services number.
She said her husband pushed her back because "pieces were flying all over, flying so fast, flying in the air."
Then she saw the helicopter "turn around and around like a tornado" and go down along with the plane. A wheel from one of the aircraft landed near Frank Sinatra Drive.
Nearby, Katie Tanski was walking along the Hoboken waterfront when "we saw all the little pieces flying in the air." She and others scurried for cover from the falling bits of helicopter propeller.
By the river, police divers looked for survivors in the turbulent waters, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. Authorities quickly cordoned off the Manhattan piers with yellow tape, while hundreds of riveted onlookers stopped on a bike path to watch as wailing emergency fire and police vehicles arrived.
The collision was closer to the New Jersey shore than to New York, but recovery efforts originated from Manhattan piers across from the Chelsea neighborhood.
At the heliport shortly after the crash, four traveling companions of the victims remained inside, awaiting word. Two of them, middle-aged men, smoked cigarettes as they tried to stay calm.
Soon, word would come that the rescue effort had turned into a recovery mission — of bodies that would be placed in awaiting vehicles to be taken to the Manhattan medical examiner's office.
Lorenzo Bossola, a 13-year-old from Rome who was in New York with his mother, was among the few lucky ones Saturday.
He and his mother, Paola Casali, had been scheduled to take the helicopter tour around the time of the crash. But Lorenzo was too scared to go, and by the time his mother convinced him, they were late getting to the heliport.
"I feel very, really lucky," she said with tears in her eyes. "Today is the beginning of a new life, to catch every moment, every minute of this life."
Associated Press writers Beth DeFalco in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Samantha Gross and Suzanne Ma in New York contributed to this report.