Swimmer Torres took tour with doomed NYC pilot
Dara Torres' young daughter kept begging to take a helicopter ride. The five-time Olympic swimmer finally gave in when they were in New York last week.
It was a memorable day, a mother and her 3-year-old child getting a birds-eye view of landmarks ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Yankee Stadium.
Then Torres learned the stunning news: The same pilot and company she flew with was involved in a tragic midair collision over the Hudson River two days later.
Torres saw a newspaper photo of doomed pilot Jeremy Clarke on Monday, checked the photos she took during her own tour and realized it was the same person. She flew at essentially the same time of day as the crash, and believes he was aboard the same helicopter that went down Saturday after colliding with a small plane.
All nine people on the two aircraft were killed, and Torres was left shaken by the thought of what might have been.
"I was a little freaked out," the 42-year-old Torres told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "You realize how precious life is. I was just with this guy two days earlier."
After competing at the world championships in Rome, Torres reunited with her daughter, Tessa, during a four-day stopover in New York before they headed home to Florida. The swimmer had several television appearances, but she squeezed in time to fulfill one of Tessa's wishes.
"Apparently, she had been telling her teacher at school, 'I'm going to take a helicopter ride.' I don't even know why," Torres said. "I would never think to take a helicopter ride, but my daughter wanted to go on one and I thought New York would be the perfect place to do it."
She contacted Liberty Tours to set up a sightseeing flight, also bringing along one of her training assistants, Anne Tierney. Mother and daughter sat up front with the 32-year-old pilot, while Tierney sat alone in the second row of the small aircraft for the 20-minute flight.
Torres was particularly taken with the pilot's distinctive accent, believing he was from of Australia. The 32-year-old Clarke was actually a native of New Zealand.
When Torres learned that Clarke was flying the helicopter that plunged into the Hudson River, "I got chills on the hairs of my arms. They were definitely sticking straight up."
"I was like, 'Oh my God, that's the same guy,"' Torres said. "It just shows that it wasn't my time yet. It's scary to think about."
Divers found the wreckage of the private plane on Monday, which they hoped would lead to the recovery of the two bodies that remained in the river. Investigators would not speculate on the cause of the crash, and their probe is likely to take months.
The helicopter had just taken off from Manhattan's West Side and was gaining altitude. Then, according to witnesses, the small plane approached from behind and clipped it with a wing. Both aircraft split and fell into the river, scattering debris and sending weekenders enjoying a warm, sunny day running for cover.
Torres said she never considered the possibility of colliding with another aircraft, though she noticed plenty of helicopters and planes flying in the busy corridor that marks the New York-New Jersey border.
"You don't think a plane is going to hit a helicopter," she said. "That didn't even cross my mind. I was thinking more about something happening to the helicopter."
Torres was relieved to be flying over water, remembering that a US Airways jet successfully ditched in the Hudson after running into a flock of geese and losing both engines in December. All 155 people aboard that plane were rescued.
Before taking off with Liberty Tours, everyone had to watch a safety video and put a life jacket around their waists that could be inflated if the helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in water.
"Anne and I were talking about that," Torres recalled. "We were almost glad to be over the river and not land. I felt safer."
Torres, who won three silver medals at last year's Olympics, failed to make the podium in any event at the world championships. But she hopes to get back at full strength after undergoing three operations in the next two months -- one for a hernia, the other two to repair an ailing knee.
While Torres won't be able to return to full-scale training until after the first of the year, she isn't ready to quit competing -- perhaps even hanging around long enough to take a shot at her sixth Olympics in 2012.
As she looked Monday through personal pictures that were taken on her tour, Torres came across some eerie shots of Clarke at the controls of the helicopter.
"I felt very bad," Torres said. "He seemed like a very nice guy and a great pilot."
She was never all that excited about going up in a helicopter to begin with -- "I have a weak stomach" -- and isn't likely to take another flight, no matter how much Tessa pleads.
"Probably not," Torres said.