HOBOKEN, N.J. – It was easy banter about which route the pilot of a Piper airplane would take through the busy airspace over New York's Hudson River. The air traffic controller at Teterboro Airport gave him two choices: Head down the river, or take a southwest tack.
The pilot chose the river route, and shortly afterward the small aircraft carrying three family members clipped a sightseeing helicopter carrying a pilot and five Italian tourists. Both aircraft plunged into the river. Nine people died.
Divers were back in New York's Hudson River Tuesday searching for the wreckage of the small plane and hoping to recover the bodies of two remaining victims from the collision.
The divers went into the murky Hudson about 11 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, two divers came up and one gave a thumbs-up to another team member on a second dive boat.
Also on the scene is the 30-ton Moritz, an Army Corps of Engineers vessel that helped search for a missing engine after U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January.
The plane and helicopter collided on Saturday, killing a family from Pennsylvania, five Italian tourists and the helicopter pilot.
Seven victims have been removed from the murky water, and divers found the eighth on Monday when they located the wreckage of the Piper. They were unable to remove the body and late Monday afternoon called off the effort until morning.
Police were consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about trying to pull the plane to the surface of the river, which is less than three-quarters of a mile wide at the crash site between New York and New Jersey. The wrecked helicopter was raised from the river Sunday.
Air traffic control transcripts described Monday indicate a worry-free exchange between controllers at Teterboro, in New Jersey, and Steven Altman, who was told he could pick his flight path toward Ocean City, where he was flying after picking up his brother Daniel Altman and teenage nephew Douglas Altman.
When a Teterboro controller asked the pilot if he wanted to go down the river or head southwest, he responded by saying: "Either."
"Let me know," the controller said.
"OK, tell you what," Altman replied, "I'll take down the river."
National Transportation Safety Board chief Debbie Hersman said air traffic controllers at Teterboro at some point told Altman to switch radio frequencies so controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport could communicate with him. Newark controllers never made contact, she said.
New York Police Department divers found the wreckage of the single-engine Piper in about 60 feet of water in the middle of the river, indicating it had drifted from the spot where it crashed, closer to New Jersey's riverbank, police said. It was on its side with no wings visible.
The divers couldn't remove the man's body from the aircraft wreckage on Monday.
All seven of the victims whose bodies were recovered have been positively identified through dental records and fingerprints, the New York medical examiner's office said. Autopsies found they died from blunt-impact injuries.
The collision at around noon on a sunny Saturday occurred in a congested flyway popular with sightseers. Hersman said an eight-day NTSB survey of the river corridor before the collision had counted about 225 aircraft flying within a 3-mile radius of the collision site each day.
Many of these tour craft fly below 1,100 feet, where pilots are largely free to choose their own routes, radioing their positions periodically but not communicating regularly with air traffic controllers.
The NTSB has issued at least 14 safety recommendations — 12 for collision avoidance — for flight in congested areas across the country, and more than 50 for the operation of air tours, Hersman said.
Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta said he had met with the medical examiner in New York and with relatives of the five Italian victims.
"Today the relatives were asking me, 'How it can be that a holiday in New York can become such a tragedy?'" Castellaneta said in Italian.
About a half-dozen relatives of the Italians were still in New York waiting to return home with their loved ones' remains. A group of 10 tourists traveled from Italy, two of them to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary.
"They are destroyed by pain," Castellaneta said.
The NTSB has declined to speculate about the cause of the crash. The agency's investigation is expected to take months.
The helicopter had just taken off from Manhattan's West Side for a 12-minute tour. Witnesses said the small plane approached the helicopter from behind and clipped it with a wing. Hersman said the helicopter was gaining altitude when the two aircraft collided.
Both aircraft split and fell into the river, scattering debris and sending weekenders enjoying the beautiful day on the New Jersey side of the river running for cover.