A helicopter pilot has died after crashing onto the roof of a building on Seventh Avenue in midtown Monday afternoon in what Mayor Bill de Blasio described as a "very strange and very troubling incident."
The Agusta A109E helicopter took off from the East 34th Street heliport and was in the air for about 11 minutes before it crash-landed on the roof of 787 Seventh Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, around 1:45 p.m., according to officials. One person aboard, presumed to be the pilot, was found dead, de Blasio said at a news conference.
"There is no indication at this time that this was an act of terror," the mayor said, adding that there were no other injuries. "Thank God for that. This could have been a much worse incident."
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said the pilot has been “preliminarily identified” and doesn’t appear to be the owner of the aircraft, which he described as a privately owned helicopter.
Paul Dudley, the director of Linden Airport in New Jersey, identified the pilot as Tim McCormack, who worked for Daniele Bodini, founder of the real estate firm American Continental Properties Group.
"Tim McCormack is a well-respected, highly trained veteran pilot who also had tremendous local knowledge, having flown in this area for many years," Dudley said. "We’re all saddened and shocked."
Investigators believe the helicopter was headed for the airport when it crashed, O’Neill said.
The building, known as the AXA Equitable Center, does not have a helipad on its roof. A fire that was sparked when the helicopter landed was extinguished and firefighters were able to contain fuel that was leaking from the aircraft, according to NYPD and FDNY officials.
Nathan Hutton, who works in information technology for the French bank BNP Paribas on the 29th floor, said the building shook when the helicopter slammed into the roof. The AXA Equitable Center, which houses a number of corporate offices, was evacuated.
"It felt like you were just standing there, and someone takes their hand and just shoves you," he said. "You felt it through the whole building."
Police cars, ambulances and fire trucks swarmed the scene in the pouring rain, with firefighters arriving about four minutes after the first 911 call, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Multiple blocks were closed down around the impacted building.
Melvin Douglas, 50, was hanging out by the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway when he heard a "big boom."
"I saw the smoke. I thought it was an explosion in the building. I didn’t think it was a helicopter," Douglas, of Manhattan, said.
As the investigation into the cause of the crash continues, de Blasio said it doesn’t appear that the pilot was cleared to fly over the area, which has been under a special flight restriction for over two years.
"There’s something mysterious here … why would an experienced pilot take this roundabout route? We do not have an indication that he checked in with LaGuardia Airport tower, which is the protocol," the mayor said on CNN. "Something strange happened here but we don’t have all the facts yet."
The building is about half a mile from Trump Tower, where President Donald Trump maintains an apartment. The area has been under a temporary flight restriction since his election in November 2016.
Trump has been briefed on the crash and praised first responders on Twitter.
"Phenomenal job by our great first responders who are currently on the scene. Thank you for all you do 24/7/365! The Trump administration stands ready should you need anything at all," the president tweeted.
The Federal Aviation Administration said air traffic controllers did not handle the flight and that the National Transportation Safety Board would lead the investigation. NTSB officials said an aviation safety investigator was headed to the scene.
It was not clear if the weather was a contributing factor in the crash. Around 2 p.m. in Central Park, there was reported fog and moderate rain, with ground visibility of a mile and a quarter, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Goodman. The cloud ceiling was 500 feet.
Both Newark and LaGuardia airports were in a ground stop due to visibility and thunderstorms, according to the FAA.
When Lt. Adrienne Walsh of the FDNY’s Rescue One arrived at the building, she and other firefighters rode the elevator to the 51st floor and then scaled six flights of stairs to the roof. Once at the crash site, Walsh said, she saw the helicopter’s wreckage and a fire fed by fuel and other material that "burned very hot."
Walsh described the crash site as a sunken area on the roof with a catwalk around it that fit into a space she estimated was about 25 feet by 40 to 50 feet. She didn’t see any structural damage to the building.
Pedestrians and motorists, meanwhile, were urged to avoid midtown throughout Monday afternoon. Traffic was blocked off from Eighth to Sixth avenues between 42nd and 57th streets for several hours. Most roadways reopened around 4:15 p.m.
Dominic Cholewa, 25, of New Jersey, was working in a building nearby when he heard a rumbling sound. He said he ran outside after getting an alert on his phone that a helicopter had crashed.
"I quickly ran outside to see what was going on. The NYPD and FDNY were all over the place and closed down Seventh Avenue from 51st Street," he said. "I noticed people running from the building on 51st and Sixth Avenue. Simultaneously, there were firefighters entering the building. After that, the police kicked everybody out of the area so I had to go back."
The AXA Equitable Center is more than 750 feet tall and was built in 1985. In addition to a number of corporate tenants, the building also houses Le Bernardin, one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants.
The skyscraper is managed by the Los Angeles-based CommonWealth Partners. Reached by telephone, LeAnn Holsapple, the office manager for CommonWealth, said the company had "no comment at this time."
The crash comes less than a month after a charter helicopter crashed into the Hudson River. The pilot, who was the only person aboard, and a dock worker were injured in that incident.
With Anthony M. DeStefano, Ivan Pereira, Lisa Colangelo, Ellen Yan, Patricia Kitchen, Rachel O’Brien, Nicole Brown and Reuters