Ferry captains remember their role in ‘Miracle on the Hudson’


As a New York Waterway ferry captain, Vincent Lombardi said he had previously rescued people from the water and picked them up from another boat. But nothing could have prepared him for the surreal experience of discarding 56 passengers from a sinking plane in the middle of the Hudson River.

Even with his training and experience, it was new territory.

“There were no criteria for pulling people out of a plane. There was no manual,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi was one of the 14 New York Waterway vessels that vaulted to rescue in response to the crash of US Airways Flight 1549, which later became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” thirteen years ago on January 15, 2009.

Ferry captains remember their role in ‘Miracle on the Hudson’
Captain Vincent LombardiPhoto by Max Parrott

After Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s plane was hit by a flock of Canada geese, the pilot expert landed the plane with a decision in a split second, a feat that attracted national attention and federal honors. The rescue effort did not end there. Ferry crews responded immediately and rescued 143 of the 155 passengers and crew from freezing winter water before the U.S. Coast Guard and 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 from hypothermia, experts have said.

It was 3.30pm when Lombardi saw the plane glide to rest in the water from the marina at West 39th Street. Co-captain Manuel Liba, who also rescued 13 people from the plane, described the initial shock at the sight as something out of science fiction.

Lombardi’s immediate reaction was to rally its crew. When Lombardi’s crew assembled the rescue equipment, he reminded everyone to try to stay calm, “because we do not know what kind of scene we are going 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 cautiously remembers maneuvering his ship up to the plane so people could board from the wingtip.

Captain Manuel LibaPhoto by Max Parrott

“There is no way to prepare for reality,” Lombardi said, adding that after the initial shock, his emergency training got underway, and with some expert improvisation, helped him perform the rescue.

Rescuers were taken to the ferry terminals at West 39th Street in Manhattan and Port Imperial in Weehawken, New Jersey, where they began receiving medical attention.

“To make it work, it was a team effort,” Liba said.

To mark the anniversary of the event, NY Waterways President, CEO and President Armand Pohan celebrated his staff for their training and expertise. The crews routinely train in water rescue and have rescued more than 100 people from the water in New York Harbor.

“The same men and women who carry our riders to work every day react like heroes in times of crisis. Because of the training and professionalism of our crews,” Pohan said.

Since that fateful day, Lombardi said he has been in regular contact with some of the crew members he rescued.

“It’s wild every day, I could wake up and think I was part of a real miracle. I mean, it really blows me away, ”he said.

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