A New York Airways helicopter idling on the heliport atop the Pan Am Building in midtown Manhattan keeled over on a broken landing gear yesterday afternoon and a huge rotor blade snapped off and slashed four people to death. A fifth victim died later at Bellevue Hospital. One piece of blade spun onto Madison Avenue, killing a woman walking on Madison and 43rd Street shortly after 5:30pm - in the height of the evening rush hour.
Authorities said that 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.
The accident occurred only about a minute after the aircraft landed after a flight from Kennedy. Its 20 passengers had disembarked and a half-dozen of 21 new passengers had gone aboard. Suddenly the right front landing gear crumpled and the huge aircraft toppled onto its right side near the northeast corner of the rooftop. Witnesses said scenes of horror ensued. “There was nothing but screaming metal and glass flying,” said one witness. “Everyone threw themselves to the floor,” said Robert Levengood. “There was blood all over everyone.” Some of the victims were cut to pieces. Shortly after the accident, the rooftop was a scene of carnage.
After slashing through the group on the roof, the blade and the glass shards tumbled down toward Vanderbilt Avenue at the base of the skyscraper’s west façade. After breaking off in a window half way down the building, part of a blade hurtled down and killed the woman on Madison Avenue and 43rd.
Wendy Goodman was in the library of the Yale Club when she heard “what first sounded like a hailstorm.” She looked up and “saw what seemed to be a shower - but it was literally a downpour of glass; it went on for about three minutes.”
A spokesman for New York Airways said its flight 972 - a 50-foot long 30 passenger Sikorsky S-61 - had 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 when the accident occurred. One of several struts from the right landing gear snapped. “The rotors might have been out of synchronization. And that’s what caused the strain on the strut.” Fire Commissioner John T Hagan. The spokesman said it was standard procedure to have the rotors going at their normal 1000 revolutions per minute during the three minute turnaround period. The blades whirl at a height of 15 feet but most people reflexively duck when entering or leaving the aircraft.
“The blades hit them and everything went everywhere - backs, legs, heads,” he said.
The blade that tumbled over the edge whirled down and plunged into a window on the 36th floor. An account executive for the Foote Cone Belding advertising agency had just stepped from his office and gone into the washroom to change into a uniform for a softball game when the blade crashed into his office. The executive, identified by a co-worker as Joe Frederick, was unhurt. “Had there not been a softball game he probably would be dead” said the fellow employee Edward Gant.
Excerpt from Robert McFadden New York Times May 17, 1977
Helicopter Accident Laid to Landing Gear
A wornout landing gear caused the fatal helicopter accident at the heliport atop the Pan Am Building in midtown Manhattan on May 16, said the National Transportation Safety Board.
As the gear collapsed, the New York Airways helicopter flipped on its right side and its whirling main rotor blade killed four persons about to board the craft. A flying blade piece killed a pedestrian two blocks away, 870 feet below. A similar failure had ocurred in LA in 1963 but the part was redesigned. This was the first failure of the redesigned part.
Excerpt from New York Times October 13, 1977