Emergency fuel shutoff was tripped before NY helicopter fatal crash, according to pilot

WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - An emergency fuel shut-off switch had been accidentally tripped moments before a fatal crash of a helicopter in New York's East River on March 11, a pilot told the National Transportation Safety Board in a preliminary report released Monday.

The Eurocopter AS350 chartered by Liberty Helicopters of New Jersey crashed, killing all five passengers after a private photo shoot trip over New York City. The pilot, who escaped, also told the NTSB that the engine trouble started shortly after a passenger slid across the seat and leaned back to take a picture. The pilot also said he saw part of a passenger's restraint harness underneath the switch as the craft was going down.

The pilot said he was "committed to impact," and "when he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, he realized that it was in the off position," the report said.

The NTSB said the pilot told investigators that as the craft was flying along the eastern side of Central Park, "the front seat passenger turned sideways, slid across the double bench seat toward the pilot, leaned back, and extended his feet to take a photograph of his feet outside the helicopter."

The engine trouble began shortly after that, said the pilot, who also said he briefly considered landing in Central Park, "but thought there were 'too many people,'" the report added.

Liberty Helicopters said in a statement earlier this month it was "focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident," adding that it was cooperating with investigators.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on March 16 ordered an end to so-called "doors off" helicopter rides unless passengers are equipped with quick-release restraints.

The FAA said operators and pilots must take immediate actions to control or mitigate the risk presented by passengers wearing what it called "supplemental restraints."

Two of the five passengers died at the scene and three were taken to local hospitals where they died later, officials said. They had been tightly harnessed and the harnesses had to be cut and removed to free them, officials said.

The NTSB report Monday said the passengers had restraint systems installed by the manufacturer as well as a harness system comprised of off-the-shelf components consisting of a nylon fall-protection harness that was attached at the occupants' back by a locking carabineer to a lanyard.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)