The pilot, 39-year-old Denise De Priester, of East Windsor, N.J., and 43-year-old passenger Christopher Smidt, of Colonia, N.J., survived 20 minutes in the frigid waters before they were rescued by an off-duty cop and his son.
Smidt talked to Eyewitness News reporter Marci Gonzalez outside his home Tuesday, saying he has been taking flying lessons from his friend Denise for about a year and a half. On Sunday, she picked him up at Old Bridge Airport. And less than an hour into the flight, they started having mechanical problems.
"We both knew that there was a problem, and we both knew that we were going down," he said.
He said all he could think about as the plane plummeted toward the water was his kids.
"The first thing I did was call my wife," he said. "I said, 'Listen, don't even say anything. This is what happened. Tell the kids I love them, and I gotta go.' Then I hung up the phone and I called 911."
The plane quickly filled with water after impact, and the 911 call captured the frantic moments that followed.
On the call, Smidt frantically shouts, "We are in the plane. The plane is taking on water."
County police dispatcher Melissa Seymour ascertains that the pair has flotation vests, then says, "I need you to get out of the plane and let me know when you're out...I need you to get out of the plane so you're not trapped."
Smidt then calls to De Priester, "Get out! Get out!...We're going down!"
Once he escapes, he yells, "The water's freezing!" He then tells Seymour he can't make it to shore.
She assured them a boat was en route, and then lost contact.
The 43-year-old correction officer swam for nearly 30 minutes, battling the current and trying to stay above water until help arrived.
"One point, I figured that was it," he said. "I was so cold. I couldn't feel any part of my body. I couldn't even move. And I just kept screaming and screaming. And Denise was like, 'Hold your energy. Stop!' I'm like, 'No, no, I'm not going to stop yelling until someone hears me.'"
Eventually, someone did. Three off-duty Yonkers police officers, a retired colleague - and the 12-year-old son of one of them - happened to be at a boat club on the river and commandeered a boat.
They plucked the freezing Smidt and De Priester from the river.
"The first thing I told them was, I think I said 'I love you guys,'" Smidt said. "I mean, there's nothing else to say."
He says it's because of them that he is back at home with his wife and his kids.
"You never know when it's going to be your time," he said. "And that wasn't our time."
Smidt also spoke at a ceremony honoring rescuers at City Hall in Yonkers on Tuesday.
When Smidt was pulled into the boat, "His hands were shaking," recalled 12-year-old Dan Higgins, Jr., who had rushed to help with his father. "I took off my jacket and he wrapped it around his hands so he wouldn't freeze...It feels good that I helped these people, and I'm just glad they're alive."
De Priester, who did not attend the ceremony, also is out of the hospital now.
Smidt, asked if he'll fly again, replied, "Absolutely."
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