The 4 Lives of Chopper 4

Tuesday, May 4, 2004. New York City was enjoying a beautiful sunny day after a rain filled weekend. Only high clouds marred the otherwise clear blue sky. The residents of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn were enjoying the day when, at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and East 29 Street, gunfire erupted at approximately 1730 hours.

Police at the scene exchanged shots with several perpetrators, firing six shots and injuring three. Police cars from throughout the 70 Police Precinct raced to the scene to backup their comrades. As police set up a perimeter and investigated the shooting, news helicopters hovered overhead to cover the story.

Around the same time, I was en route to the Brooklyn central office. I heard numerous police cars screaming in area but I did not know why until I reached the office and saw the news coverage as provided by WABC's news copter. We watched for a few moments then went about our business, leaving the TV on in the background.

No one was watching at the critical moment. The next thing we noticed on the TV was a helicopter in pieces on a rooftop. The reporter from WABC, Shannon Sohn, was pleading for help from the emergency services. Based on what we were watching we started the process of inputting the alarm, but we didn't have an exact location. Just then, Rescue 2 called us with the location of Lott Street and Cortelyou Road.

At 1825 hours the firehouse alert tones shrieked into life. A first alarm assignment and a host of special units from Special Operations converged on 2514 Cortelyou Road. Chopper 4, from WNBC TV crash-landed on top of the building. Amazingly, two of the three occupants of the helicopter walked out of the wreckage. The pilot, however, was trapped inside.

Thus began a three-pronged operation at the scene. NYPD's Emergency Services Unit (ESU) and our own rescue units started working on exrtricating the pilot while other FDNY units dealt with a fuel leak from the craft, and checked the structural stability of the building.

Meanwhile back in the central office, we were dealing with a lack of information coming from the scene. With only 4 engines and four ladders assigned there wasn't much of a coverage problem, we had relocated enough companies to cover the area. But if this was going to turn into a multi-alarm incident we would have covered more houses than was necessary.

By some amazing circumstance, there was no fire or major structural problems with the building. Companies applied a foam blanket on the fuel, and SOC units performed some minor shoring up of the building. By 1951 hours the incident commander declared the incident under control.

This is the fourth incident involving helicopters from WNBC. Early in 1986, an NBC radio traffic copter ditched into the Hackensack River in New Jersey. The pilot, and reporter Jane Dornacker, survived the crash and swam to safety. Later that same year, another NBC radio traffic copter was reporting on traffic condition in Manhattan. Jane Dornacker was live on the air when she started screaming, "Hit the water! Hit the water!" The craft crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore. Rescue 1 made the rescue but it was too late for Jane. She didn't survive. In 1998, another NBC news copter crashed into the Passaic River in New Jersey. Both occupants of the craft survived that incident.