As a New York Waterway ferry captain, Vincent Lombardi said that he had rescued people out of the water before and picked them up from another boat. But nothing could have prepared him for the surreal experience of recusing 56 passengers from a sinking plane in the middle of the Hudson River.
Even with his training and experience, that was new territory.
“There was no criteria for pulling people off of a plane. There was no manual,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi was one of the 14 New York Waterway vessels, which vaulted to rescue in reaction to the crash of US Airways Flight 1549, which later became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” thirteen years ago on Jan. 15, 2009.
After Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s plane was struck by a flock of Canada geese, the pilot expertly landed the plane with a split-second decision, a feat that drew national attention and federal honors. The rescue effort didn’t end there. Ferry crews responded instantly, saving 143 of the 155 passengers and crew from freezing winter waters before the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York City Fire Department arrived to rescue the remaining people.
If these ferry crews had not responded as quickly as they did, many people would have died or suffered severe effects of hypothermia, experts have said.
It was 3:30 p.m. when Lombardi witnessed the plane gliding to a rest in the water from the boat dock at West 39th Street. Fellow Captain Manuel Liba, who also rescued 13 people from the plane, described the initial shock of the sight as something out of science fiction.
Lombardi’s immediate reaction was to gather his crew. As Lombardi’s crew gathered the rescue equipment, he reminded everyone to try and keep their composure “because we don’t know what kind of scene we’re pulling up to.” He was next to the plane in three minutes.
As his vessel slowly approached, he had to be careful not to create a wake because there were passengers standing out on the wing. Lombardi carefully recalls maneuvering his ship up to the plane so that people could board from the tip of the wing.
“There’s no way to prepare for reality,” Lombardi said, adding that after the initial shock, his emergency training did kick in and, with some expert improvisation, helped him accomplish the rescue.
The rescuees were taken to the ferry terminals at West 39th Street in Manhattan and Port Imperial in Weehawken, New Jersey, where they began to receive medical attention.
“Making it work, it was a team effort,” said Liba.
To mark the anniversary of the event, NY Waterway Chairman, CEO and President Armand Pohan commemorated his staff for their training and expertise. The crews train routinely in water rescues and have saved more than 100 people from the waters of New York Harbor.
“The same men and women who carry our riders to work every day respond as heroes in times of crisis. Because of our crews’ training and professionalism,” Pohan said.
Since that fateful day, Lombardi said that he has stayed in regular contact with some of the members of the crew whom he rescued.
“It’s wild every day I could wake up and think that I was part of an actual miracle. I mean that really blows my mind,” he said.