Video of the incident filmed by an onlooker and posted on Twitter showed a red helicopter descending toward the water at dusk, then landing with a large splash before tipping onto its right side, its tail lights still flashing.
The helicopter, a private charter hired for a photo shoot, went down near Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence.
Witnesses say the Eurocopter AS350, a model tourism companies tend to use, filled with water quickly after it went down.
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He told the New York Post: "It looked like it was completely submerged".
"You could clearly see they were searching", she said. Helicopters fly people around the city for business, traffic reports, medical reasons and tourism. Crashes are not unheard of.
The other three were taken to hospital in critical condition. The helicopter reportedly crashed near 89th Street in Manhattan around 7 p.m. Sunday. In June 2005, two helicopters crashed into the East River in the same week.
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The NYPD and FDNY confirmed rescue operations are under way.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash and the extent of possible injuries. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
A Reuters photographer witnessed three people recovered by rescue divers being wheeled on stretchers onto a midtown pier shortly before 9 p.m.
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