By Beth Hughes
How were the NY Waterway ferry crews able to react instantly when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on January 15? How did they save 142 of the 155 people on board, including two babies, in a rescue in which there was no loss of life?
“Our captains and deckhands did not wait for orders,” said NY Waterway founder Arthur E. Imperatore. “They responded quickly and surely.”
“I can’t even find the words to explain how important it is to conduct drills,” says Captain Vincent LuCante. With the company for 12 years, he now oversees all the captains who command the company’s 34 vessels, their crew and the drills. “We could not have been as successful with the rescue and as fast to respond if we didn’t drill the way we do.”
He reports to Robert Matticola, the company’s director of homeland security, safety and compliance, who says the drills are both internal on a monthly basis covering scenarios such as man overboard (they practice with a 180 pound dummy), CPR and first aid, fire, abandon ship, security breaches—emdash;and external, exercises that involve coordination with local, state and federal law enforcement and emergency response agencies responding to scenarios such a live bombs.
“We conduct drills every month,” says Matticola. Where the law requires quarterly drills, his crews drill more frequently. “We pick a boat and do spot checks at random.”
He and LuCante review evaluations of each drill conducted by the captains and their crew. “Everything is documented,” says Lucante. And knowing what they do well and what needs improvement continues to be a boon. The company has been involved several rescue operations including people who fall overboard, pleasure craft in distress, the 9/11 evacuation of 150,000 people, and more than 125,000 in the 2003 blackout.
The meetings of the Area Maritime Security Committee coordinated by the Coast Guard and the Port Authority help everyone operating on the river get to know each other, according to Matticola. Through the Training & Exercise Sub Committee, the AMSC undertakes both tabletop and realtime exercises several times a year. Both kinds of drills help everyone involved learn how various entities operate, he adds.
Among the drill participants are the U.S. Coast Guard, the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, Port Authority Police Department, the New Jersey Transit Police, New Jersey State Police, the Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City police, the North Hudson Regional Fire Department and many other local EMS and fire departments.
For example, from August through December, N.Y. Waterways went through three tactical response exercises—yes, SWAT teams were involved—that entailed outsiders getting to know the facilities and personalities of N.Y. Waterways. “That contributed a lot to the success of the Flight 1549 rescue,” says Matticola. “They didn’t have to take time to get oriented.”
Indeed, it was during one of those exercises that NY Waterways made sure that emergency responders programmed the exact location of the Weehawken terminal, which can be difficult to find, into their GPS units.
That meant the Red Cross and various emergency medical service teams knew where to go, in a situation where every second counted working in the 35-degree waters of the Hudson River.
The constant drilling paid off for the ferry crews who responded to Flight 1549. “You can drill for years, you can do drills like your whole entire career and you’ll be getting bored out of your tree but when something like this happens, 100 people sit back and say “‘Thank God we do this,’” says LuCante. “I bet you a good percentage of the crews were surprised at how well they responded.”
The timing and location of where Flight 1549 landed was almost too perfect for a drill. At 3:30 p.m., all the crews were in Weehawken, readying for the evening rush. The flight landed between the docks used as the company’s main ferry terminal and its maintenance facility. “The boats just had to turn around and head to the plane,“ Matticola says. “Our first ferry was there in a little over three minutes, and a total of 14 N.Y. Waterways ferries responded to the crash, some arriving from Manhattan.
Seven of our ferries removed almost all the passengers within seven minutes.”
At 3: 30 p.m., Captain Vincent Lombardai had just pulled the ferry Thomas Jefferson away from the West 39th Street terminal. When he arrived at the plane, deckhands Hector Rabanes and Wilfredo Rivera deployed the Jason’s Cradle over the bow and began pulling 56 people on board.
Captain Manny Liba and his crew on the Moira Smith rescued 14 people. Captain Brittany Catanzaro on the Gov. Thomas Kean and her crew saved 24 people.
When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked NY Waterway Director of Ferry Operations Alan Warren what his crews were thinking when they saw the plane in the water, Warren said, “We don’t think. We just react.”
The ferries took the shaken passengers to the company terminals at West 39th Street and Port Imperial in Weehawken. In both locations, office staff had triage centers set up, and donated their own clothing to warm the wet and very cold arriving passengers. On the Jersey side, one staffer remembered a stash of company bus driver uniforms, which were extracted from storage and given away.
“The rescue went incredibly well,” says Matticola. “So many things went right.” He wants to keep a cache of supplies and clothing at the terminals on each side of the river. In the meantime, he’s busy coordinating more drills with the FDNY, the NYPD and the N.Y.C. Office of Emergency Management.
Lucante, a longtime advocate of drills, says everyone on the ferries now embraces the importance of drills, which includes making sure equipment is in tip-top shape. “If a nut or bolt is loose, I hear about it. It was not at that level before the rescue. I’m so proud of them.” LuCante, by the way, guided by Captain Michael Starr, who jumped aboard from the work dock, steered the Yogi Berra parallel with the inflatable life raft holding the infant who was rescued with his mother, and 22 others.
What could the N.Y. Waterways crews have done better?
“Everybody got off the plane, how could we do it any better than that?” LuCante says. “Everybody used the equipment the right way, how could they do any better than that? I think we were 100 percent.
All because of the drills? “Absolutely.”