NY Times facts don't support Woman as near-victim of fatal helicopter crash

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The New York Times reports that an Italian tourist and her son were almost victims in the Hudson river helicopter crash yesterday. Problem was The Times says the tourists were supposed to arrive between 12 and 1pm. However,the flight had already crashed by noon, according to FDNY operations. They first received reports of the crash at 11:54am. (The photo above was part of The Times coverage).

It’s a familiar angle to a disaster story: The New York Times writes that a woman and her son dither on the way to a helicopter tour. They miss their scheduled departure by minutes. Soon, they learn that all on board died in a mid-air collision over water. She tells reporters: “I feel very, really lucky. Today is the beginning of a new life, to catch every moment, every minute of this life.”

I am sure the tourist who did have a reservation to fly on a Liberty Helicopter tour on Saturday felt spooked after learning that one of the company’s copters had been lost in the Hudson River. But did her fear merit a news story if she was scheduled on a flight that was to take off AFTER the fatal crash’s departure?

As judged by independently verifying the facts The Times presents in its report, the supposed near victim was not even scheduled to be on the fatal flight.

Times reporter Serge F. Koveleski’s story – “Two Who Arrived Minutes After Fatal Hudson Crash, and Avoided Death,” page A16, Aug. 9, 2009 – lays out an internally contradictory tale. He writes:

“Paola Casali, 42, a tourist from Rome, was hoping to make a midday helicopter tour with her 13-year-old son, Lorenzo, from the West 30th Street heliport on Saturday, but she arrived shortly after the doomed helicopter had left. Two days earlier, she had called Liberty Helicopters to reserve seats on a tour for her and her son, and was told to be at the heliport on Saturday between noon and 1 p.m.”

But a call to FDNY operations reveals that they first received reports about the crash at 11:54 a.m. Saturday.

If Casali was told to be there between 12 and 1, how would she ever be uniquely at risk for a fatal flight that was scheduled to leave BEFORE her fixed ticket time?  Even if she and her son HAD arrived on time, they still wouldn’t have been victims on a flight that left at 11a.m.-something and crashed before noon.

Liberty Helicopter operations and reservations inform StinkyJournalism.org that customers are told to arrive half an hour before their fixed-time reservation. When I called to ask whether anyone would be told to arrive between 12 and 1 p.m., the woman at Liberty said “no.”

I spoke to the Times reporter by phone to inform him of his apparent errors.

“That’s what the woman told me,” he said, adding that “she could have been told to come earlier.” But he himself reports that she wasn’t told anything other than to appear between noon and 1, which Liberty denies is its procedure.

Kovaleski also said Casali showed him her ticket. I asked, “What time did it say? Since you wrote 12 to 1, it must be that? And It’s after the crash.”

“I am not going to answer that,” he replied. He said he was too busy writing more stories on the crash.

Whether she thinks God’s very hand or her son’s pre-caffeine foot-dragging (“He wasted his time at Starbucks, and so we arrived too late”) kept her off the fatal flight, no doubt Casali feels relieved.

But according to the facts, as The Times presents them, this is pretty clearly a case of a passenger booked for a flight after the crash. Maybe since I thought about going on a helicopter tour, my relief at not being on the ill-fated flight also merits news coverage? It could have been me.

UPDATE: 08/17/09: Please go to our latest report for an update.

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NY Times facts don’t support Woman as near-victim of fatal helicopter crash

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