As Jet Was Ditched, Nearby Ferries Went Into Rescue Mode

At 2:00 mark, plane enters from left screen, then ditches into the Hudson River.Video courtesy of Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

NEW YORK, Jan. 17 -- On Thursday afternoon, Capt. Vince Lombardi was backing his ferry, the Thomas Jefferson, out of Manhattan's Pier 79 in the Hudson River when he noticed a strange-looking boat.

No, he realized -- it was a commercial jet. Lombardi quickly moved his crew into high gear for a rescue.

"I gave the command to my guys: 'Get the overboard equipment ready. We got to do this fast, or we're not going to have any survivors,' " Lombardi said.

No ferry captain expects to encounter a disaster of this magnitude, said Lombardi and a half-dozen other captains who helped all 155 survivors of a US Airways jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River. But they're trained for it. They learn CPR, basic firefighting and hypothermia treatment.

Last July, a Circle Line vessel rescued survivors of a helicopter that crashed near the Lincoln Tunnel while on a sightseeing trip. In August, New York Waterway deckhands plucked a struggling swimmer out of the Hudson. In September, New York Water Taxi crew members rescued a 65-year-old man whose kayak capsized during a lesson.

In fact, there are so many ferryboats moving thousands of people a day through the congested New York Harbor that they have come to be an efficient and flexible waterborne first-response team.

Their response time is almost always less than two minutes, most often less than a minute and a half, said Vince Lucante, a port captain for New York Waterway, Lombardi's company. On Thursday, Coast Guard video showed, the first boat was alongside the jet within three minutes of it hitting the water.

"It's not in the day-to-day job description, but it is there," said Michael Starr, another port captain for New York Waterway. "People don't often realize the emergency skills a ferryboat job requires."

The pilot of the Charlotte-bound US Airways jet was aware of the ferryboats, his co-pilot told the National Transportation Safety Board on Saturday, and picked a spot that would be close to them, so that his passengers could be rescued before the plane sank.

An NTSB member said pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III told investigators that he landed in the Hudson to avoid "catastrophic consequences" over a populated area.

After striking birds, Sullenberger reportedly told investigators, the plane was "too low, too slow" and near too many buildings to attempt an airport landing, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the jet lay in a thickening section of ice as the cold complicated retrieval efforts. Late Saturday, a crane raised the submerged jet on five slings.

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