NEW YORK – The first rescuers on the scene when a crippled jetliner landed in the Hudson River were not police or the U.S. Coast Guard, but ferries that offer visitor tours and shuttle commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Within minutes, the sightseeing and commuter ferries were close enough to begin plucking passengers off the wings of the wallowing A320 Airbus. One commuter ferry line, New York Waterway, said three of its ferries rescued 142 of the 156 people on US Airways Flight 1549.
"It was hard to stay with it," said Brittany Catanzaro, the 20-year-old captain of the New York Waterway ferry Governor Thomas H. Kean, who picked up 24 survivors. A sister ferry, the Yogi Berra, commanded by Vincent Lucante, retrieved an infant and a toddler, and when they started to cry it was "the best sound that we could hear," he said.
The ferries — the ugly ducklings of New York's harbor waters — have responded to emergencies outside their wheelhouse windows before.
When two hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, commuter ferries abruptly turned themselves into evacuation craft, transporting thousands of dazed and frightened people from the scene to safety across the Hudson.
Some ferries also evacuated people stranded by a massive power blackout in the summer of 2003.
When the jetliner's twin engines were disabled by a flock of geese on takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, the pilot splashed down in mid-river with all the grace of an aquaplane — just as the New York Waterway ferry Thomas Jefferson was backing away from the company terminal at West 39th Street for a pre-rush hour run to Weehawken.
Captain Vincent Lombardi, 32, saw what he first thought was "an odd-looking boat," but quickly realized it was an aircraft. Notifying the Coast Guard by radio, he was first at the scene and within five minutes his crew was pulling the first of 56 passengers aboard.
The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, had looked for boats nearby in deciding where to ditch his aircraft, the NTSB said.
Within minutes of the crash landing, at least six ferries and a number of smaller craft, including police and fire department boats, converged on the plane, which was drifting southward at about 3 miles an hour.
Others who rushed to the scene included two high-speed catamaran ferries, the Athenia and the Admiral Richard E. Bennis, which were docked in Weehawken, and the ferry Moira Smith.
There was also one private craft, a former Coast Guard work boat whose owner, Scott Koen, 50, of Rutherford, N.J., was cleaning up when he heard a radio call and raced to the site a mile away.
"When you can pull 150 people out of the water and nobody dies, there's nothing to compare it with — this is the one," said Koen, who retrieved about six survivors. "There were a lot of brave people in the water that day and they were all worried about each other, not themselves."