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In 1977, Five Were Killed In Helicopter Accident Atop Midtown’s Pan Am Building

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This week, a helicopter crash-landed on a roof in Midtown, killing the pilot; while pieces of the copter fell below to the streets, no one below was injured. For some, the incident called to mind a deadlier helicopter accident that happened at a Manhattan tower over four decades ago.

On May 16th, 1977, a New York Airways helicopter killed five people in Manhattan. While it did not crash, it did tip over as it sat idling on the heliport atop the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building, at 200 Park Ave) in Midtown. This caused the aircraft to come apart—as it tipped over a large rotor blade snapped off and, as the NY Times described it the next day, “slashed people to death before coming to rest 59 stories below and a block away on Madison Avenue.” The first four victims were on the roof, the fifth was on the street below. Others suffered non-fatal injuries.

In the NYT account, they report that the blade acted like “a gigantic boomerang,” noting that the incident happened around 5:30 p.m. during the height of rush hour. The chaotic scene was not easy for first responders to get to, either—”emergency medical crews encountered delays of 30 to 45 minutes in getting the injured out of the building because elevators had been shut down on the upper floors.”

A spokesman for New York Airways told the paper that the copter was a 50‐foot long 30‐passenger Sikorsky S‐61 which had just “made its 10‐minute trip from Kennedy to the Pan Am roof without incident and had been on its pad idling for about one minute of a three‐minute turnaround when the accident occurred.”

The Airway had been operating since the early 1950s, with service to the Pan Am building starting in December 1965. This was the Golden Age of helicopter travel, and it came with the promise of commuting above the street grid. This, of course, brought concerns from locals that on top of noise issues, this kind of helicopter traffic over highly populated areas was potentially dangerous.

In 1999, the NY Post looked back at the crash, noting that “the crowded streets around Grand Central Terminal became a war zone” as the incident “hurled death from above.” Not only did pieces of the blade come down, but glass and parts of the Pan Am building—which the blades hit—also landed below. The Post disturbingly reported that “bits of bodies mangled by the flying debris were scattered in sickening disarray.” One onlooker told them, “I looked up. All I could see was garbage, debris, blue pieces of paper, glass and stone falling… People were running everywhere for cover.”

The Times reported that the tragic incident was “the first major accident at the controversial helicopter landing site atop the tower… the heliport was used for 26 months, but service was stopped in February 1968—principally because it was not profitable—and flights were resumed only last February 1st.” Following the accident, Mayor Beame “ordered the Transportation Administrator to revoke the permit until the Federal Aviation Administration investigates and makes the necessary report.”

The victims of the crash—which led to the closing of the heliport—were: filmmaker Michael Findlay, NYU student Clay S. Young, lawyer David J. Toomey, Italian tourist Enrico Gnaga, and Bronx native Anne Barnecott.

In 1983, a $6 million settlement was reached “during court proceedings on a damage suit brought by New York Airways following the fatal 1977 accident atop the 58-story Pan Am Building,” The NY Times reported. They noted that, “A central piece of evidence brought in the suit on the rooftop crash suggested that the collapse of the landing gear might have been related to rigorous tests flown at above-normal weights before Sikorsky delivered the craft, a 28-passenger twin-turbine S-61.” The settlement also included another suit regarding a 1979 crash at Newark International Airport.

The technical report for the 1977 crash can be read here.

Weird fact: Artist Richard Serra read about the accident and was particularly interested in the removal of the remaining debris on the roof. From a 2007 NYT piece:

In 1977, when Mr. Serra’s pieces had begun to grow so large he needed expert moving help, he had no idea where to turn. But one day, shortly after a highly publicized accident in which a helicopter toppled on the helipad atop the Pan Am Building, sending rotors and other debris flying, he saw in the newspaper that a rigging company had agreed to take on the extremely risky job of lowering the jagged pieces of wreckage down 58 floors.

“That’s a hell of a tricky job,” Mr. Serra said, seeming impressed even all these years later. “I mean, there’s no handbook in terms of rigging on how you do that one.”

“So I just got in my car and I went to see them. I said to myself, ‘Now these are the guys I want to work with.'”

Here’s a video from New York Airways; at the time, the service was cheaper than a cab (around $6 compared to $8).



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