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New twist in Hudson River collision investigation

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[August 18, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- A helicopter hit by a small plane over the Hudson River wasn't initially visible to an air traffic controller handling the plane, federal safety officials say in a revised account of the deadly collision.

The statement by the National Transportation Safety Board, issued after public pressure from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, provides some vindication to the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

NTSB had previously said the controller failed to warn the plane's pilot of the potential for a collision with several aircraft in its path, including the helicopter, before handing off responsibility for the plane to another airport.

Nine people -- three aboard the plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot aboard the helicopter -- were killed in the Aug. 8 accident over the river between New York and New Jersey.

The board said in a statement Monday that while the controller at Teterboro failed to warn of several aircraft in the path of the single-engine Piper, the tour helicopter wasn't one of the aircraft on the controller's radar screen until seven seconds after the handoff to nearby Newark Liberty International Airport.

The traffic controller's union had been pushing publicly for NTSB to correct the account, an unusual move that caused NTSB to boot the union from the investigation.

NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in the board's statement, released shortly after the union held its second news conference on the issue, that parties to investigations signed an agreement not to publicly discuss the information gathered by the board while the investigation is ongoing.

"Although we appreciate the technical expertise our parties provide during the course of an investigation," Hersman said, "it is counterproductive when an organization breaches the party agreement and publicly interprets or comments on factual information generated by that investigation. Our rules are set up precisely to avoid the prospect of each party offering their slant on the information."

Union spokesman Doug Church said: "It's important that the NTSB has clarified this key point in the sequence of events. All we want to see is a factual account of the incident and we continue to believe the facts show that our Teterboro controller could not have done anything to prevent this horrible tragedy."

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The Teterboro controller made a personal phone call shortly after clearing the Piper for takeoff at 11:48 a.m. EDT and remained on the phone until the collision five minutes later, even while he was directing traffic, according to the board and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The controller and his supervisor, who was out of the building at the time of the collision, have been placed on administrative leave with pay by the FAA. The agency said in a statement last week that while it appears the controller's conduct didn't have any impact on the crash, his behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable.

The NTSB, in a pointed statement in its report, said it would decide what role the controller played in the accident, and other opinions are "speculative and premature."

The public spat between the board and the union and the FAA is unusual. Typically, the union and the FAA avoid any public statements regarding an ongoing investigation so as not to jeopardize their status as parties, which gives them access to information uncovered by the NTSB long before it becomes public.

However, union officials said they were willing to give up their role in the investigation because they strongly felt the controller's role was being misrepresented.

[Associated Press; By JOAN LOWY]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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