Vincent LuCante had to make a split-second decision.
He could rescue the baby in the life raft first or extend his hand to the survivors perched precariously on the plane’s wing, some shivering and drenched with ice-cold water. LuCante went with his gut.
“We found an infant and a child. And as much as we wanted to get them out right away, we knew they were more safe than the rest. They didn’t appear to be wet; no one appeared to be injured,” says LuCante, a ferryboat port captain with NY Waterway.
After pulling the passengers from the wing to safety, including two who had fallen into the icy water, LuCante, from Point Pleasant, and another Jersey-based captain, Michael Starr, began emptying the raft.
“The mother, at first, wasn’t so quick to hand over the child, understandably,” LuCante says. But both came safely aboard, and the 9-month-old boy’s cries let all know everything was okay. The other survivors on the raft soon followed.
“It was just, you know, it was excellent—a great feeling,” says Lucante, 41 and a twelve-year NY Waterway veteran.
When LuCante got the call that US Airways Flight 1549 had ditched in the Hudson River, he rushed from his office at Weehawken’s Port Imperial ferry terminal and linked up with Starr, a Jersey City resident. Tied up at the marina, the NY Waterway ferryboat they would use to rescue 24 people from the frigid waters was not even in service on January 15.
The boat, dubbed the Yogi Berra, arrived at the downed plane in less than four minutes; it was the third vessel on the scene after the Thomas Jefferson and the Moira Smith. Brittany Catanzaro, a 20-year-old ferryboat captain from Fairview, soon followed on the Thomas Kean, pulling 26 survivors to safety.
“I think the passengers were in amazement of what they were seeing,” says Alan Warren, director of ferry operations and a Hazlet resident.
Fourteen of the company’s ferryboats rescued 142 of the 155 passengers stranded in the Hudson, after their Airbus A320 was brought down when a flock of Canada geese was sucked into both engines.
Founded in 1986 by owner Arthur E. Imperatore, NY Waterway operates ferries that transport about 28,000 passengers per day between New York and New Jersey. Flight 1549 came down about 600 yards from NY Waterway’s Port Imperial work dock, says LuCante.
When LuCante reached the side of the floating aircraft, the passengers seemed unusually calm.
“It was incredible, it was quiet. When we approached, they looked up to us for direction. There was no panic; there was no yelling or screaming. They wanted us to tell them what to do,” LuCante says.
Quick reaction would not have been possible without sufficient preparation. LuCante is NY Waterway’s maritime training instructor and runs monthly safety drills to brush up on procedures. Drills include deploying the Jason’s Cradle, a tough, plastic, ladder-like net that was an indispensable part of the rescue.
The cradle can act as a ladder on which able-bodied passengers climb up to a boat, or it can provide a basket-like lift for those who need partial or total assistance. Every NY Waterway ferry has the lifesaving net on board.
Warren says the drills are essential to maintaining accuracy, consistency, and success in water rescues. The company performs four to five rescues per year and also provides frequent assistance to boaters in need, he adds.
In addition to monthly drills, NY Waterway works closely with the Hudson County Urban Area Security Initiative Rapid Deployment Force and New Jersey Transit, and has run tactical drills with the New Jersey State Police.
Still, a downed plane in the middle of the Hudson River is not something for which one actually prepares.
“When you drill and train, you’re drilling for a single victim. One, maybe two, maybe four, but never 155 people. It’s just something you wouldn’t train for,” Warren says. “Just to see it work—it was like a clock, that’s how perfect it was.”
The entire plane was cleared of all passengers and the Yogi Berra returned to shore in less than eighteen minutes, even before ambulances or police had arrived at the terminal, Warren says.
Almost 80 rescued passengers were brought back to Port Imperial, where office employees were waiting with blankets and clothes, ready to warm the weary.
“We can get them out of the water, but we need a place to bring them. We need a place that, when we get there, emergency services are there. It was like a well-oiled machine, because everything had to work off of each other,” says LuCante, the father of two daughters, Victoria 11, and Jacqueline, 9.
NY Waterway recieved the Coast Guard’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service award, at a ceremony at Port Imperial in February. Each captain who had a hand in the rescue, whether it was to deploy a Jason’s Cradle or to offer a warm blanket was given the Meritorious Public Service Award.
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