The family of a Dallas man who died in a helicopter crash Sunday in New York City has filed a lawsuit against the helicopter company and others, as federal investigators continue their probe of the crash.
The helicopter capsized after touching down in the East River, and only the pilot escaped.
The medical examiner ruled on Tuesday that each of the five passengers drowned.
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The lawsuit filed by the family of 26-year-old Trevor Cadigan, a Southern Methodist University graduate, spotlights the harnesses used in the open-door flight, and notes that the aircraft's inflatable floats didn't keep it from flipping over and sinking. The way passengers were harnessed, with a release mechanism in the back, there "was just no prospect of safely escaping," said Gary C. Robb, a lawyer for Cadigan's parents.
"Hanging upside-down in frigid water — stunned by the helicopter crash, tightly harnessed, release inaccessible, with no advanced training — is a death trap," said Robb, based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The suit seeks unspecified damages, but Robb said Cadigan's parents mainly want to end open-door flights for taking aerial photos.
Liberty Helicopters hasn't responded to requests for comment and referred all inquiries to federal authorities.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the aircraft had been flying about 2,000 feet over the city on a scheduled 30-minute flight when the pilot sent out a "Mayday" call saying his engine had failed.
After the helicopter made a hard landing in the water, it tipped over and was carried upside-down in the fast river current while police and Fire Department divers tried to free the passengers from their safety harnesses. Two victims died in the water. Three more were pronounced dead after several hours of treatment at a hospital.
In addition to Cadigan, the others who died in Sunday's crash included 26-year-old Dallas firefighter Brian McDaniel, as well as an Argentine tourist, a former basketball team assistant and a 34-year-old man.
A plane carrying McDaniel's body was greeted Tuesday at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with a water cannon salute in his honor. Several Dallas Fire-Rescue firefighters then accompanied his body in a procession to the funeral home.
NTSB investigators said electronic devices recovered from the helicopter or from the victims, including the Go-Pro camera and data recorder, were being sent to laboratories in Washington. Officials also were examining the restraint systems.
Passengers' safety harnesses on open-door photo tours are different from pilots' seat belts, said helicopter pilot Bill Richards of the aerial photography company New York Film Flyers.
"The pilot survived because the pilot has a single-point release on his seatbelt. It's sitting right in front of him right in the middle," Richards said. "All he has to do is pull up one lever and the seatbelt comes apart, and he's practiced getting in and out of the aircraft hundreds and hundreds of times and knows exactly how to do that."
Harnesses made to keep overzealous passengers from falling out of an aircraft's open door, he said, are much harder to unstrap. Passengers get a knife they can use to cut themselves free, but that doesn't mean the passengers know how to use them.
New York-based aviation attorney Brian Alexander said the harnesses themselves "may not be a problem," but it might be crucial to know how thoroughly passengers are briefed about getting out in an emergency.
"If you're a tourist off the street, and it's the first time, that's where it seems to me it triggers a much higher duty for these operators to make sure the passengers are prepared to handle that," he said.
Liberty has been involved in at least five accidents or other incidents in the last 10 years, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. Three incidents ended in safe landings after, for example, one chopper clipped another while taking off from a helipad. But an August 2009 collision over the Hudson River between a Liberty chopper and a small private plane killed nine people.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the FAA Monday to suspend Liberty Helicopters flights until the facts of the crash are known. Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez renewed calls for banning sightseeing copter flights over Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Some Democratic New York city council members are pressing the city to take its own steps to crack down on helicopter tours, though it's not clear how much the city can do.