At a little after 3 p.m. on a warm October afternoon at the intersection of the FDR Drive and 34th Street, New York’s finest and bravest, and our Office of Emergency Management, came together with our top trauma center at Bellevue only a few blocks away and participated in an old-fashioned rescue that saved four of the five lives that were in danger.
I was there and saw it.
The helicopter — containing a pilot, two British tourists and their daughter, and the daughter’s Australian friend — lost power while ascending from the 34th Street heliport and crashed into the East River. The father, a man in his sixties, struggled to release his stepdaughter but was tragically unsuccessful. Having come up for air, he clung to the sinking helicopter with the pilot, and with the help of the first responders on the scene they swam to the safety of the shore. But the others were still caught by the sinking helicopter.
As the helicopter sank, emergency responders dove down and released Harriet Nicholson and her daughter’s friend, Helen Tamaki, and they were brought to the surface. I arrived on the scene as they were being transported to Bellevue Hospital, where I had trained and worked in the emergency room for several years. The water temperature was in the high 50s, and the patients had quickly become hypothermic as the cold water drew the heat out of them, dropping their body temperatures from 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to the low 90s, which even as it jeopardized their hearts may have preserved their brains and helped them survive.
Tamaki’s heart stopped beating, and Mrs. Nicholson had trouble breathing as her lungs had filled with water, but they were stabilized and brought to the hospital, where they were placed on respirators and their lungs were suctioned free of fluid. It quickly looked like they would survive.
Meanwhile, the pilot stayed at the scene of the crash, and the male passenger was treated and released from another local hospital.
Firefighters and police, boats and emergency vehicles lingered at the scene on into the night, as the mayor came and went and Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Brown and Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Office of Emergency Management Frank McCarton tirelessly answered the media’s questions.
One of the first emergency responders on the scene, a member of the police counterterrorism “Hercules” unit who had immediately dived into the water without special equipment, told me that he had been on his way to investigate a suspicious package when the call came. It reminded me that all the gearing up for terrorism that New York has done is helpful at a time like this, when our protectors and emergency personnel come together and a swarm of responders dive quickly into the cold water of the East River to reach a crippled copter.
As the Bellevue Hospital emergency room, equipped to handle trauma of all kinds, stabilized the two survivors and transferred them upstairs to intensive care, Harriet Nicholson’s daughter, Sonia Marra, was finally liberated from the water. The helicopter had sunk more than 40 feet to the bottom of the river. By the time the diver (outfitted in full mask, tanks, and wetsuit) finally found her, 90 minutes after the crash, it was too late. She was pronounced dead on the scene.
Through the night, the Bellevue surgical team warmed the patients, compensated for their low blood pressure, and worked to clear their lungs. Treating near-drowning victims is very tricky, because lung and heart function can wax and wane.
These survivors flew in the wrong vehicle, but they were lucky enough to be in the right city, close to the right hospital, at the right time.
— Marc Siegel, M.D., is an internist in New York City and a Fox News medical contributor. He is the author of The Inner Pulse: Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health.
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.