The victim, visiting the city with her family to celebrate her 40th birthday, apparently was trapped inside as the chopper sank about 50 feet below the surface of the swift-moving water, police said. New York Police Department divers pulled her from the water about 90 minutes after the Bell 206 Jet Ranger went down at around 3 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Emergency crews arrived within seconds of the crash to find the helicopter upside-down in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing, and witnesses reported a man diving down, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger.
The passengers were friends of the pilot's family: Paul and Harriet Nicholson, a British husband and wife who live in Portugal; the wife's daughter, Sonia Marra, also British, who died at the scene; and the daughter's friend Helen Tamaki, an Australian. The daughter and her friend were living in Sydney.
They met in New York to celebrate the birthdays of Marra and Paul Nicholson, 71. They were sightseeing and had planned to go to Linden, N.J., for dinner afterward, police said.
The pilot's wife, Sunhe Dudley, told The Associated Press that she had spoken to her husband briefly after the crash.
"I think that he's OK," she said. "These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter."
The three surviving passengers were pulled from the water shortly after emergency crews arrived on the scene, police spokesman Paul Browne said. All were hospitalized. The pilot was uninjured and swam to shore.
The private chopper apparently had run into trouble and was trying to return to the heliport when it went into the river off 34th Street in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks south of the United Nations headquarters. It's unclear what happened, but witnesses reported it was sputtering and appeared to be in some type of mechanical distress.
Joy Garnett and her husband were on the dock waiting to take the East River ferry to Brooklyn when they heard the blades of a helicopter and saw it start to take off from the nearby helipad. She said she saw it do "a funny curlicue."
"I thought, `Is that some daredevil move?"' she said. "But it was obviously out of control. The body spun around at least two or three times, and then it went down."
She said the chopper had lifted about 25 feet off the ground before it dropped into the water without much of a splash. It flipped over, and the blades were sticking up out of the river.
Joseph Belez was watching helicopters from a boardwalk and saw the crash.
"It was going up, and then all of a sudden it just spun itself and went down to the water," he said. "I was just watching it take off, and it was just all of a sudden spinning. It just went down. It was a shock. It really was."
A massive rescue effort was under way within minutes of the crash, with a dozen boats and divers down into the cold, grey water. Police officers doing a counterterrorism drill nearby jumped into the water wearing their uniforms, and without any rescue equipment they pulled the three passengers to shore.
"The pilot did indicate that there was somebody still in the helicopter," Lt. Larry Serras said. "By the time we swam to the helicopter it was completely submerged."
Officer Jason Gregory, one of the divers who brought the woman's body to the surface, said the helicopter was upside down in the sediment. He said the woman was in the back seat and wasn't buckled in by any seat belt.
The helicopter was from Linden, N.J., near the Statue of Liberty and the Newark, N.J., international airport and a popular base and refueling stop for helicopters operating in New York. The pilot apparently reported problems in the helicopter and said he was turning around, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Paul Dudley is a commercial pilot and owns Linden Airport Services, the company that manages the Linden municipal airport under a 20-year contract with the city, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said.
"He flies light aircraft, he flies helicopters," Gerbounka said. "He's an accomplished pilot."
In November 2006, Dudley landed a Cessna 172 light plane in a park near Coney Island in Brooklyn after the engine failed. No one was hurt during the emergency landing, and the plane was taken back to Linden after mechanics removed the wings.
The National Transportation Safety Board was on scene Tuesday, and crews pulled the wreckage from the water about four hours after it went down. The chopper would be taken to the police department's Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The airport in Linden was locked down briefly pending the arrival of Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators.
The Bell 206 Jet Ranger is one of the world's most popular helicopter models and was first flown in January 1966. They are light and highly maneuverable, making them popular with television stations and air taxi companies. A new one costs between $700,000 and $1.2 million.
The East River has been particularly tricky for pilots because of its many bridges and its proximity to LaGuardia, one of the nation's busiest airports. In 2006, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle died when the Cirrus light plane he was flying crashed into a residential building while trying to make a turn over the river.
On Aug. 8, 2009, a small plane collided with a helicopter over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, killing nine people, including five Italian tourists. A government safety panel found that an air traffic controller who was on a personal phone call had contributed to the accident.
The FAA changed its rules for aircraft flying over New York City's rivers after that collision. Pilots must call out their positions on the radio and obey a 161 mph speed limit. Before the changes, such radio calls were optional.
Earlier that year, an Airbus 320 airliner landed in the Hudson after hitting birds and losing both engines shortly after taking off from LaGuardia. The flight, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, became known as the Miracle on the Hudson plane.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg praised a coordinated emergency response. Witnesses said the crash happened quickly. Carlos Acevedo, of Puerto Rico, was with his wife at a nearby park area when they saw the helicopter go down.
"It sank fast," he said. "In seconds. Like the water was sucking it in."
Associated Press writers Chris Hawley, Jennifer Peltz, Anita Snow and Cristian Salazar in New York and Samantha Henry in Linden, N.J., contributed to this report.