Investigators Set to Hoist Jet From River

January 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm 1 comment

A day after a dramatic splashdown and rescue, in which all 155 passengers and crew members aboard a US Airways jet escaped safely from an icy plunge into the Hudson River, officials involved in the rescue operations described the intense, but controlled efforts in the frigid temperatures.
Meanwhile safety investigators prepared, with a giant crane and a barge, to lift the mostly submerged aircraft from its resting spot in the water at Battery Park City.

NY Times Photos, Video

Near the Hudson piers where only cruise ships and ferry boats dock, the silent presence of the plane, an Airbus 320, was yet another chilling reminder of the incongruous scene of near-disaster turned into rescue phenomenon.

At a Friday morning news conference Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hailed the heroic efforts of its pilot, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who used the river as an impromptu landing strip when both of his engines blew out less than two minutes into the takeoff from La Guardia Airport.

Mr. Bloomberg presented him, as well as the plane’s crew, with a key to the city. “His brave actions have inspired millions in this city and around the world,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Bloomberg said he would save the key until he could present it in person, adding that Mr. Sullenberger would not be available to speak while the investigation of the National Transportation Safety Board was being conducted.

At the City Hall news conference, Mr. Bloomberg also handed out certificates of appreciation to the officials from the city’s office of emergency services, as well as the New York Police Department, Fire Department of New York, Coast Guard and the New York Waterway harbor master, who came to the immediate rescue of the downed plane.

What might have been a catastrophe in New York — one that evoked the feel if not the scale of the 9/11 attack — was averted by Mr. Sullenberger’s quick thinking and deft maneuvers, and by the coordinated efforts of rescue boats and personnel on the Hudson.

Mr. Sullenberger, unable to get back to La Guardia, had made a command decision to avoid densely populated areas and try for the Hudson, and had warned the 150 passengers and four other crew members to brace for a hard landing. Most had their heads down as the jetliner slammed into the water, nose slightly up, just three minutes after takeoff on what was to be a flight to Charlotte, N.C.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Mary Berkwits, of Stallings, N.C., a passenger on Flight 1549, who prepared to return to Charlotte Friday morning at La Guardia Airport. “He was just wonderful.”

Many on board and watching from the shores were shocked that the aircraft did not sink immediately. Instead, it floated, twisting and drifting south in strong currents, as three New York Waterway commuter ferries moved in. Moments later, terrified passengers began swarming out the emergency exits into brutally cold air and onto the submerged wings of the bobbing jetliner, which began taking in water.

“I was on the wing hanging on with a lot of other passengers,” Ms. Berkwits said. “We’re slowly sinking further and further into the water. And the water was very cold. We’re all trying to stay as warm as possible by holding on to one another. We knew somebody would come and get us right away. We could see boats coming, helicopters flying around us.” As the first ferry nudged up alongside, witnesses said, some passengers were able to leap onto the decks. Others were helped aboard by ferry crews. Soon, a small armada of police boats, fireboats, tugboats and Coast Guard craft converged on the scene, and some of them snubbed up to keep the jetliner afloat. Helicopters brought dry-suited police divers, who dropped into the water to help with the rescues.

A picture emerged late Thursday and Friday morning of just how perilous the rescue operations and the actual towing of the aircraft was, as boat operators battled a swift tide and the frigid temperatures.

Capt. Richard Johnson, 52, of the New York Fire Department, was one of the first boats to reach the plane, a 27-foot rescue boat.

“We came right alongside the wing and the pilot did a great job of holding position,” Mr. Johnson said. “They kind of jumped toward the boat and we pulled them off, one at a time. Their legs would be hanging over the side and then we had to heave them over the side of the boat and we had to do that with each individual person.”

He added: “It is very surprising they were able to hold that composure and stand on that wing, for 10 minutes or so. I am extremely surprised that no one slipped off that wing.”

At the same time, the current — approximately two to three knots — was pushing the plane southward. Once all the passengers had been evacuated onto rescue boats — and the pilot walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure the plane was empty — the fire boat had to secure the plane.

  “We ran the rope through the cockpit door, open, and out the other side, through the other side and got it lashed through,” Mr. Johnson said. “We wrapped it around the tail. We were not sure the two lines would hold up. And they could have snapped anytime. A couple times, we were attempting to get more lines on it, but we were nearing close to Battery Park.”

A private tugboat operator, Conrad H. Roy, said he assisted the fire boat in tugging the plane, which weighs about 81 tons on land, to Battery Park.

Brought ashore on both sides of the river, the survivors were taken to hospitals in Manhattan and New Jersey, mostly for treatment of exposure to the brutal cold: 18 degrees in the air, about 35 degrees in the water that many had stood in on the wings up to their waists.

Still, most of them walked ashore, some grim with fright and shivering with cold, wrapped in borrowed coats. But others were smiling, and a few were ready to give interviews to mobs of reporters and television cameras. Some described their survival as a miracle, a sentiment repeated later by city and state officials; others gave harrowing accounts of an ordeal whose outcome few might have imagined in such a crisis.

The aircraft was towed down the Hudson and tied up at Battery Park City. In the glare of floodlights, the top of its fuselage, part of a wing and the blue-and-red tail fin jutted out of the water, but its US Airways logo and many of its windows were submerged.

W. Douglas Parker, chairman and chief executive of US Airways, and officials of the Federal Aviation Administration said that Flight 1549 had taken off from La Guardia at 3:26 p.m., bound for Charlotte. It headed north, across the East River and over the Bronx on a route that would involve a sweeping left turn to head south. But both engines lost power about a minute into the flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board and state and local agencies are to investigate the cause of the crash, which could take months, but early indications were that the plane’s engines had shut down after having ingested a flock of birds — variously described as geese or gulls. It was not clear where the birds were encountered.

The pilot radioed air traffic controllers on Long Island that his plane had sustained a “double bird strike.” Without power, returning to the airport was out of the question, aviation experts said. He saw a small airport in the distance, apparently at Teterboro, N.J., but decided to head down the Hudson and make a water landing, a rare event that is mentioned in the safety instructions given by flight crews to all passengers on every flight.

Aviation experts said such a maneuver is tricky. An angle of descent that is too steep could break off the wings and send the aircraft to the bottom.

Neighbors of the pilot, who lives in Danville, Calif., about 40 miles east of San Francisco, described Mr. Sullenberger as calm, controlled and the kind of person who handles emergencies well.

“If anybody could do it, it would be him,” said one neighbor, Frank Salzmann.

Witnesses in high-rise buildings on both sides of the Hudson River described a gradual descent that appeared to be carefully controlled, almost as if the choppy surface of the Hudson were a paved tarmac.

Susan Obel, a retiree who lives on West 70th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in a 20th-floor apartment, saw the plane flying amazingly low. “When you see a plane somewhere that it isn’t supposed to be, you get that eerie feeling,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a terrorist, but I did worry.”

On the plane, passengers heard the pilot say on the intercom, “Brace for impact.” One passenger, Elizabeth McHugh, 64, of Charlotte, seated on the aisle near the rear, said flight attendants shouted more instructions: feet flat on the floor, heads down, cover your heads. “I prayed and prayed and prayed,” she said. “Believe me, I prayed.”

Fulmer Duckworth, 41, who works in computer graphics for Bank of America — coincidentally, more than 20 of the passengers work for the bank, which is based in Charlotte — was in a meeting on the 29th floor of a building at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas when he saw the plane hit the water.
It made this huge, gigantic splash, and I actually thought it was a boat crash at first,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me that it was a plane in the water.”

Neil Lasher, 62, a consultant for Sony Music Publishing who lives in a 27th-floor apartment near the shore in Guttenberg, N.J., watched the plane go down.

“As soon as the plane hit the water,” he said, “I could see the New York Waterway ferries from New York York and the Jersey side, within a minute, heading toward the airplane.”

The aircraft began to spin counterclockwise in the water and to drift south with the current.

“As soon as we hit, we all jolted frontward and sideways, and then the water started coming in around my feet,” Ms. McHugh said. She got up and was pushed along the aisle and out an exit, then slid down an inflated slide into a life raft.

One of the passengers who scrambled out onto the wing was Jeff Kolodjay, 31, who had been in Seat 22A in the rear. He said that after the emergency doors were opened, the plane began to take on water. In what he described as “organized chaos,” the passengers, all wearing life vests, “just walked through the water” toward the exits.

“We were just looking to be calm, and walking a straight line,” he said.

Dozens of survivors were taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. Jim Mandler, a spokesman at Roosevelt, said 10 patients, ranging from their early 30s to a woman about 85, had been treated, mainly for hypothermia. A flight attendant had suffered a lacerated leg.

At the Weehawken ferry terminal, passengers shivered under blankets. A woman on a stretcher was carried from the terminal to an ambulance, a dazed look on her face.

Airbus issued a statement saying that the plane had been delivered to US Airways on Aug. 2, 1999, and that the company would send investigators to New York to help determine the cause of the accident.

F.A.A. records showed that the aircraft involved in the crash had made at least two other emergency landings in this decade. On Feb. 2, 2002, pilots spotted flames in the left engine, and on June 23, 2003, indicators warned about problems with a landing gear. A later inspection showed it was a false warning.

Tom Fox, president of New York Water Taxi, which sent boats to the scene in the Hudson but did not participate in the rescues, said the setting was, in a sense, ideal. “It couldn’t have gone down in a better location because there are so many water-borne assets there,” he said. “The pilot must have been both talented and charmed.”
 
Reporting was contributed by Michael Barbaro, Carla Baranauckas, Ken Belson, Viv Bernstein, Ralph Blumenthal, Cara Buckley, Russ Buettner, Glenn Collins, Jim Dwyer, Kareem Fahim, Kevin Flynn, Anemona Hartocollis, Christine Hauser, Javier C. Hernandez, C. J. Hughes, Tina Kelley, Corey Kilgannon, Patrick LaForge, Andrew W. Lehren, Patrick McGeehan, Jo Craven McGinty, Mick Meenan, Christine Negroni, Kenny Porpora, William K. Rashbaum, Ray Rivera, Liz Robbins, Marc Santora, Nate Schweber, Kirk Semple, Joel Stonington, A. E. Velez, Mathew R. Warren and Margot Williams.
New York Times 

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. coffee  |  January 16, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, sounds like the pilot did a great job

    Reply

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