Heroes on Hudson River

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Mayor Bloomberg presented the crew from the &#39;Miracle on the Hudson&#39; with keys to the city.</span></div>
January 16, 2009 6:11:38 PM PST
Michael Starr couldn't sleep Thursday night. Instead, the 30-year-old Jersey City resident stared at his bedroom ceiling, which served as a screen for the images of the day he spent helping people who had been aboard a US Airways jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River earlier that day.

He saw well-dressed people shivering in knee-deep water on the wings of a sinking jetliner; passengers crowded into inflatable rescue slides; an infant in its mother's arms; and three people bobbing up and down in the Hudson River in orange life vests.

"I just kept staring at the ceiling," he said. "I just kept playing it over in my head."

Starr and his friend, Vincent LuCante, pulled 24 survivors out of the 36-degree water, including some too frozen to grasp the rescue ladders hanging over the side of the M.V. Yogi Berra ferry.

"We pulled three people out of the water first, then we got the kids off of the starboard slide," Starr said Friday. "There was one little girl that kind of knew what was going on. The infant was the best of them all - she was just looking around. She never cried until we got her on board."

The day had begun like any other, except for the bitter cold. Temperatures had fallen to 20 degrees, but felt at least 10 degrees colder along the waterfront.

Starr and LuCante were working in separate offices aboard the Port Imperial ferry terminal's repair barge, waiting for the afternoon commute. As port captains, they serve as supervisors for the NY Waterway facility in Weehawken.

After hearing initial reports of the crash, they independently reached the same decision and ran for the Yogi Berra motor vessel moored nearby.

The 86-foot-long ferry was gassed up and ready to go.

"I called for Vince, and he was already on this way," Starr said. "He had it untied before I even had the engines started."

Starr gunned the Yogi Berra, but didn't have time to reach the jet-propelled ferry's top speed before he was slowing down to avoid swamping the 150 passengers and five crew members of US Airways Flight 1549.

The Charlotte, N.C.-bound plane had left LaGuardia Airport at 3:26 p.m. Thursday, but less than a minute later the pilot reported a double bird strike, meaning both engines had been hit.

Joe Hart, 50, said passengers felt a thud inside the plane, and the right-side engine stopped running almost immediately afterward.

"The left-side engine kept running, but it sounded really bad," said Hart, a Massapequa, N.Y. resident. "That's when we started to descend toward the river. Then that engine went out, and that's when we started to glide."

Hart said the impact was reminiscent of a rear-end collision, throwing people into the seats ahead of them.

Susan Ascolese, a North Bergen resident who witnessed the crash from her waterfront apartment, said the plane appeared to land softly. She said the crowd of passengers who then left the aircraft looked "like ants on bread."

M.V. Yogi Berra was the third vessel to reach the scene.

"We were surprised to see anyone," Starr recalled.

Another NY Waterway ferry on the scene, the M.V. John Kean, was piloted by 20-year-old Brittany Catanzaro of Fairview. The Cliffside Park High School graduate recalled having to run the motor vessel's engines in reverse just to keep pace with the floating plane and passengers being carried by the tide.

Her vessel rescued 24 survivors.

Catanzaro's actions earned her a bear hug from Gov. Jon S. Corzine after a news conference Friday at Port Imperial. Corzine and U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg hailed the NY Waterway employees as heroes of the "Miracle on the Hudson," saying they couldn't recall a happier ending to a more potentially tragic situation.

During the news conference, Starr and LuCante stood in the back of the crowd of elected officials and NY Waterway executives, and they never approached the cluster of microphones.

But neither one of them expect to ever forget what they saw and did Thursday.

LuCante, 41, of Point Pleasant, recalled that survivors who had been calm in the water turned panicky once they got aboard the Yogi Berra. They were dripping wet and freezing cold, and there was nothing on board to wrap around them.

"We wound giving them our coats and our hats," Lucante said. "We were down to our T-shirts by the time we got back."

NY Waterway's ferries were credited with pulling 142 of the 155 survivors out of the Hudson. There were no deaths, and injuries were confined mainly to hypothermia and twisted ankles, although one woman broke both legs, according to H. Mickey McCabe, director of the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management.

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