A tourist flight to view the beauty of the Grand Canyon ended in unimaginable tragedy when two New York-area men died in a fiery air crash as their wives flew ahead in another helicopter. Shaya Lichtenstein, 31, and Steve Fastag, 30, were among the six who perished Friday.
Their wives, Nitza Lichtenstein and Hillary Fastag, were placed on the second flight by the tour company in an effort to balance the weight between the two aircraft, according to a friend who was aboard the second copter.
The other dead passengers were identified as Avi Wasjbaum, his wife Barbara, and David Daskal, 29, whose wife Chana miraculously survived, but remains in critical condition.
Papillon Airways, the helicopter company, identified the dead pilot as Capt. Kevin Innocenti, 27, who had been with the firm for a year.
Meanwhile, a passenger on the second chopper said his pilot pulled several daredevil stunts in hopes of a bigger tip.
"He told us 'You don't get a second chance to make a first impression,'" said Robert Lovy. "He acted like he was headed straight for the [canyon] wall and at the last minute he turned up."
Lovy, who narrowly missed being assigned to the crash copter, was not impressed in his good fortune.
"I don't look at it that I was lucky," he said. "I look at it that six or seven people were unlucky."
Papillon has a record pockmarked with disaster. It has had three other chopper crashes in the past three years in the same area along the Colorado River, National Transportation Safety Board records show:
* A sightseeing helicopter crashed in Tusayan, Ariz., south of the Grand Canyon, in April 1999, killing the pilot and severely injuring one passenger.
An NTSB investigation concluded the helicopter's engine failed because it was stored unprotected overnight during light snow and cold weather.
* In April 2000, a chopper carrying five passengers was forced to crash-land five minutes after takeoff when the pilot "felt a few short 'clunks' and then heard grinding noise and felt violent shaking," the NTSB report says. Nobody was hurt.
* In 1998, a Papillon copter crashed during a training flight near the Grand Canyon. No one was killed.
* In addition, two helicopters operated by Papillon crashed in Hawaii in 1994, in separate incidents attributed to improper maintenance. Papillon also made three emergency landings in Hawaii between 1994 and 1996.
A company spokesman and the NTSB had no comment on the checkered safety record.
When tragedy struck Papillon again Friday, a group of 12 New Yorkers was aboard the two helicopters returning to Las Vegas from a flight over the canyon.
One of the aircraft, an American Eurocopter AS350BII, went down at Grand Wash Cliffs, a series of dramatic red-rock formations outside Meadview, Ariz.
The pilot and five passengers were instantly killed when the chopper slammed into the rugged cliffs at 3,700 feet and burst into flames, authorities said.
The sole survivor, Chana Daskal, 23, of Brooklyn, was airlifted to University Medical Center, where she was in critical condition with internal injuries and burns over 80 percent of her body.