Helicopter crashes in New York City's East River; all 5 passengers dead, pilot only survivor

The helicopter pilot who managed to survive Sunday's plunge into New York City's East River made a chilling and frantic distress call before the crash, which left all five of his passengers dead.

“Mayday . . . Mayday . . . Mayday . . . East River engine failure,” the pilot called out over his radio seconds before going down.

The pilot, whose name has not been released, managed to survive by climbing onto a raft, but the passengers, who were part of a tour operated by  New Jersey-based Fly Liberty Charter, all died.

The passengers were recovered shortly after the 7:06 p.m. crash by police and fire department divers, who had to remove them from tight harnesses while they were upside down, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

"It took awhile for the drivers to get these people out. They worked very quickly as fast as they could," Nigro said. "It was a great tragedy that we had here."

Police said the pilot freed himself and was rescued by a passing tugboat.

Three of the passengers had been listed in critical condition after being rushed to nearby hospitals; two were declared dead at the scene.

Two of the critical victims were sent to New York's Bellevue Hospital with no heartbeat and were not expected to survive, a source told Fox News. The third critical victim was rushed to NYU Langone Hospital.

The group, which officials said was flying as part of a Liberty Helicopters tour, was on the private Eurocopter AS350 for a photo shoot when it crashed around 7 p.m.

In 2009, a sightseeing helicopter of the same model and operated by the same company as the one in Sunday's wreck collided with a small, private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.

Officials said the water Sunday night was frigid, with temperatures below 40 degrees.

The helicopter was being chartered for a photo shoot when it went down near Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence.

Video posted on Twitter shows a red helicopter land hard in the water and then flip on its side as its rotors beat the water.

One witness told the New York Post she watched the crash unfold from her apartment window and "immediately thought someone was in there and not going to live."

“By the time we got out here, we couldn’t see [the helicopter]," Mary Lee told the Post. "It was under water.”

Another witness, Arineh Nazarian, described seeing the helicopter crash while she and others were eating dinner.

"We noticed a red helicopter going full speed towards the water," Nazarian told WABC. "It almost looked very surreal and next thing we know it's approaching the water slowly and then it just completely crashed and then sunk."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Edmund DeMarche is a news editor for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @EDeMarche.