NEW YORK (Reuters) – A helicopter crashed onto the fog-shrouded roof of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper on Monday, killing the pilot and unnerving a city still scarred by memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, airplane attacks on the World Trade Center.
The crash on a rainy, gray day atop the 54-storey AXA Equitable Center forced office workers to evacuate in one of the city’s busiest areas a few blocks north of Times Square.
The pilot was the only person aboard the chopper when it plunged into the building and burst into flames, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference. No injuries, either to people in the building or on the ground, have been reported.
“The helicopter is pretty obliterated at this point. It was obviously a very hard hit,” de Blasio said, adding nothing indicated “an act of terrorism.”
Nicolas Estevez was standing across the street from the building when a 12-inch (30 cm) piece of metal that appeared to be from the helicopter landed on the pavement just feet away.
The crash, which sent people streaming out of the building within seconds, reminded him of Sept. 11, Estevez said.
“I saw the explosion and the smoke coming out,” he said.
A key mystery in the crash is why the Agusta A109E was flying at all in a rainstorm in tightly controlled airspace above midtown Manhattan.
To enter that vicinity, de Blasio said, the pilot would have needed approval from the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport across the East River in Queens, “and we need to find out if that happened.”
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement “FAA air traffic controllers did not handle” the helicopter’s flight, but a spokeswoman for the agency declined to say whether the aircraft was observing prevailing flight restrictions.
The pilot was identified as Tim McCormack, who was going to land at Linden Airport in New Jersey, said Paul Dudley, the airport’s director.
“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 in a phone interview. “We’re all saddened and shocked.”
McCormack worked for Daniele Bodini, founder of the real estate firm American Continental Properties Group, Dudley said.
The chopper took off from a heliport on Manhattan’s east side at 1:32 p.m. and crash-landed on the building 11 minutes later, officials said.
The site is about half a mile from Trump Tower, where U.S. President Donald Trump maintains an apartment. The area has been under a temporary flight restriction since his election in November 2016.
FELT LIKE HE WAS SHOVED
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.
“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.”
Trump called New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was at the scene soon after the crash, to offer assistance if needed, the governor’s office said.
Cuomo said the crash likely stirred memories of Sept. 11 for many city residents.
“If you’re a New Yorker, you have a level of PTSD from 9/11,” he said.
In addition to BNP Paribas, the AXA Equitable Center, built in 1985 houses offices for corporate tenants such as law firms Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Sidley Austin, and investment manager New Mountain Capital. Le Bernardin, one of New York City’s most celebrated restaurants, is also in the building.
The skyscraper is managed by Los Angeles-based CommonWealth Partners. CommonWealth office manager LeAnn Holsapple said the company had “no comment at this time.”
Manhattan has only three approved heliports after they were banned in New York City in 1977 after a rotor blade snapped on a helicopter on top of the former Pan Am building, killing five people.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen, Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Writing by Joseph Ax and Bill Tarrant; Editing by Bill Rigby, Tom Brown and Chris Reese