By Michael T. Cranwell
On January 15, 2009, at 1530 hours, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, made an emergency landing in the middle of the Hudson River, abeam of the NY Waterways commuter ferry terminal in Weehawken, New Jersey. Passengers evacuated the aircraft, taking refuge on the wings and in rafts.
The North Hudson Regional Fire Communications Center received multiple calls reporting the ditching. At 1534 hours, a North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue (NHRFR) first-alarm assignment (four engines, two ladders, one heavy rescue, one battalion chief, one deputy chief, and one safety officer) was dispatched to 1 Pershing Road (Arthur’s Landing) in Weehawken on the Hudson River waterfront, about a quarter-mile south of the ferry terminal.
En route, Deputy Chief David Curtis directed the communications center to notify the Fire Department of New York and ordered deployment of NHRFR’s 32-foot fire boat, Marine 1, moored a quarter-mile south of the incident. I responded as the first-due battalion chief, arriving on the scene just as Curtis was getting out of his car. All we knew in those first few moments was that a large aircraft was down in the water and that a boat was approaching the dock with victims. We needed to know much more and to get the right resources to this incident.
Four minutes earlier, I had been responding to a routine alarm malfunction at a local grammar school when the radio alarm was transmitted for an aircraft down in the Hudson River. Within 60 seconds, I was headed toward one of the most extraordinary runs in my 35 years on the job. Approaching the waterfront, I saw a dozen people on the sidewalk along the chest-high wall, pointing toward the river. But I couldn’t see what held their attention, just the disheartening expressions of grief on their faces.
As a licensed private pilot, I was familiar with the airspace above the Hudson River, a high-density air corridor. Flights arriving and departing from the area’s three major airports, Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International, and LaGuardia, within a radius of 20 miles make this one of the most congested airspaces in the nation. I also knew that the Hudson River is a major air corridor for general aviation, since I have flown through this corridor many times myself. Driving down to the river, I thought the “plane down” was likely to be a light aircraft. The first engine company’s radio report, indicating a large passenger jet was involved, was utterly discouraging. I anticipated a catastrophic outcome.
PERSHING ROAD COMMAND
At 1537 hours, Squad 7 established command and transmitted its initial on-scene report stating that they observed a “large jet in the middle of the river.” The squad was joined at the dock by seven police officers from the Weehawken Police Department (WPD) and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Police Department (PAPD). At 1538 hours, Curtis and I arrived on scene, along with Squad 1, Engine 5, and the safety officer.
No one knew what had disabled the aircraft, but it was obvious that many people had evacuated the aircraft and needed to be rescued. According to initial reports, 146 passengers were aboard the flight; it was later confirmed as 155.
We set up the Pershing Road Command in the valet parking area of the Arthur’s Landing Restaurant (photos 1, 2). Officers from NHRFR, the Weehawken Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the WPD, and the PAPD conferred, initiating the unified command process. That conference established the following goals:
- Restrict scene access to emergency responders.
- Set passenger rescue as the utmost priority; responders would coordinate with New York City emergency services in the rescue effort.
- Obtain emergency medical service (EMS) resources for a mass-casualty incident.
- Provide immediate medical attention and a private, secure sheltered area for rescued passengers.
- Account for the survivors, and initiate victim tracking.
- Acquire and manage the flow of more detailed information.
- Cooperate with investigating agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board.
(1) The New Jersey command post (Pershing Road Command) was set up shortly after companies arrived on scene at 1 Pershing Road in Weehawken. The smaller boat on the left side of the dock, the Henry Hudson, soon after was making its way toward survivors in a raft near the tail of the aircraft. (Photos by Ron Jeffers.)
(2) (Left to right) NHRFR Deputy Chief David Curtis on a cell phone with the dispatch center during the initiation of the victim tracking process, trying to confirm with FDNY how many passengers were aboard Flight 1549. I brief Chief of Department Brion McEldowney on the rescue operation’s status: what rescue assets were on scene and what additional assets were available.
Command immediately designated the NY Waterways ferry terminal the Ferry Division, which would be the primary receiving point to accept and triage the more than 100 victims who were expected to be sent to New Jersey; Command also ordered EMS and police personnel to the ferry terminal to receive the victims. NY Waterways was directed to send its New Jersey-bound ferries to the terminal.
Command requested NHRFR to strike a second alarm, which brought NHRFR Battalion 3, Ladder 4, and Rescue 1 to the ferry terminal. Battalion 3 Chief William Valentine was named the Ferry Division supervisor, responsible for coordinating the emergency response at the ferry terminal, working with EMS in attending and tracking rescued passengers at the terminal, and interacting with law enforcement.
Anticipating a large influx of victims, Command assigned NHRFR Battalion Chief David Barth to assist Valentine. Hudson County EMS Coordinator Mickey McCabe, assigned as EMS Branch director, supervised EMS operations at the ferry terminal.
The restaurant at 1 Pershing Road (Arthur’s Landing), a quarter-mile south of the terminal, was designated as the sheltered triage center for the first victims who were then disembarking there. Battalion Chief Mike Giacumbo was assigned as the victim tracking officer at the restaurant.
Because of the quick decision making and the exceptional airmanship that Flight 1549’s Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger demonstrated, passengers were able to self-evacuate the aircraft. They took refuge on the wings of the plane and in rafts deployed from the plane. The air temperature was 20°F; the water temperature, 36°F.
Even before police and fire rescue units arrived, the captains of several NY Waterways ferries, recognizing the emergency, redirected their courses toward the plane to render aid. These quick-thinking ferry captains and their crews performed superbly and were commended for their heroic efforts in the rescue.
Emergency responders from New York and New Jersey converged on the sinking aircraft and accomplished an expedited rescue operation.
At 1540 hours, the NHRFR Squad 1, Squad 7, and Engine 5 crews, along with WPD and the PAPD police officers, boarded the NY Waterways ferry Henry Hudson, moored at Arthur’s Landing. Within two minutes, the vessel was heading toward stranded passengers in a raft at the tail of the aircraft. They were the first of New Jersey’s emergency services to reach the aircraft. Squad 1’s officer transmitted a radio report informing Pershing Road Command that three FDNY fireboats, the NHRFR fireboat, and three civilian ferries were removing survivors from the aircraft (photo 3).
(3) Rescue boats converging on the stricken aircraft, joining the NY Waterways ferries. The Henry Hudson, located at the center of the aircraft’s fuselage, was the first vessel to bring New Jersey emergency responders to the scene.
The Henry Hudson was soon joined by more NY Waterways ferries, multiple vessels from FDNY and the New York Police Department (NYPD), a Circle Line sightseeing boat, NHRFR Marine 1, two U.S. Coast Guard boats, and later New Jersey State Police (NJSP) boats. Directed and coordinated by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the rescue operation was completed swiftly; within 40 minutes, the airliner’s rescued passengers and crew were on shore. Although the outgoing tide was moving the aircraft south on the river at 10 knots, this did not hinder the operation since the rescue boats were also moving with the tide.
By 1544 hours, two USCG rigid-hull inflatable boats arrived at Arthur’s Landing. At 1555 hours, NHRFR Squad 1 reported to Pershing Road Command that divers had entered the aircraft’s cabin and verified that it had been completely evacuated. Emergency service boats continued to search the river for additional victims.
At 1557 hours, NHRFR Rescue 1 personnel boarded another NY Waterways ferry along with advanced life support (ALS) EMS units, departing from the terminal to participate in the rescue effort. At 1600 hours, the Rescue 1 officer relayed reports from FDNY water rescue units that all passengers had been accounted for.
Jeff Welz, director of Weehawken Public Safety, codirector of NHRFR, and the Weehawken municipal emergency management coordinator, arrived on the scene just as Squad 7 was transmitting its initial report. With a 35-year background in public safety and a close affiliation with three key agencies already on the scene, Welz was uniquely qualified to coordinate the response of fire, police, and EMS and liaison with the state and county offices of emergency management. With the rescue of so many survivors then underway, Welz activated the Hudson County EMS Mutual Aid Plan, immediately bringing in 25 EMS units from around the county to cope effectively with this mass-casualty incident. These units responded to an EMS staging area at the scene.
Anticipating the need for even more EMS participation, the New Jersey EMS Task Force was also mobilized but only partially deployed. Additional EMS units, primarily from Bergen and Essex counties, were also mobilized and directed to stage at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, six miles from Weehawken, but were not deployed.
It was quickly decided that the optimal location for disembarking large numbers of rescued survivors would be the NY Waterways ferry terminal, located a quarter-mile north of the command post. This spacious facility is on Port Imperial Boulevard, a two-lane north/south roadway that parallels the Hudson River. A two-lane access road from the boulevard accommodates normal commuter dropoffs and pickups.
This choice was ideal. The police could easily clear and secure the terminal, and multiple EMS vehicles could stage close by and then drive directly to the front of the terminal without tying up traffic on Port Imperial Boulevard. As the ferry boats arrived at the terminal, the victims could be taken immediately indoors to the warm triage area. The ferry terminal is also just two miles south of the Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, which has a quick-response emergency department that includes a heliport.
The first of the two USCG rigid-hull inflatable boats arrived at the Arthur’s Landing dock near the command post with 10 passengers, followed by a second one with nine more. Emergency responders on the dock escorted them into the nearby Arthur’s Landing Restaurant. EMS units initially responded to this site, where they triaged and treated victims for nonlife-threatening injuries, mostly minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Subsequent arriving EMS units were directed to the NY Waterways Ferry Terminal, where large numbers of victims could be better accommodated and attended to. EMS provided triage, treatment, and tracking at both locations (photo 4).
(4) Fire, police, and EMS personnel attending to the survivors inside Arthur’s Landing Restaurant. Interagency cooperation in all areas made this rescue operation a success. The restaurant staff was also very cooperative and helpful.
NY Waterways ferries subsequently brought 42 more passengers to the main ferry terminal. EMS immediately took three of these passengers to the hospital for treatment of possible hypothermia. While law enforcement provided security, EMS immediately evaluated the remaining 58 passengers at the ferry terminal and at the restaurant. Because of the air and water temperatures, these survivors were wet and cold. They were treated primarily for hypothermia, minor cuts, and bruises. The Red Cross provided blankets, and NHRFR provided disposable redress garments.
(5) NHRFR Squad 7 and Squad 1 personnel, along with Weehawken and Port Authority police officers, disembark from the Henry Hudson after completion of the rescue operation.
Incredibly, none of the 155 passengers and crew of Flight 1549 sustained life-threatening injuries. Sixty-one passengers were taken to the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. At 1715 hours, they were bused to the Weehawken Senior Citizen Nutrition Center, where they were reunited with loved ones.
VICTIM TRACKING AND ASSISTANCE
An accurate accounting of all those aboard Flight 1549 was vital to confirm that everyone had been rescued. This was complicated, since victims were taken to sites on both sides of the river. The victim-tracking data from New Jersey, essentially the arriving passengers’ names and seat assignments, were quickly passed to Deputy Chief Curtis at the command post. This information was relayed to the NHRFR dispatchers in West New York, who communicated by landline with the FDNY Fire Operations Center, which had access to the US Airways passenger list.
Initially, there was some confusion regarding two toddlers who were onboard the flight, because they did not have their own seat assignments. Both toddlers were located at the Weehawken ferry terminal along with their mother, and this information was passed on to FDNY.
When the last victim had been transported from the ferry terminal, the Weehawken OEM, EMS, and PAPD conferred to definitively verify that all passengers and crew of Flight 1549 had in fact been accounted for. The PAPD had obtained the passenger list from US Airways at LaGuardia Airport, where the flight originated.
As the first group of dazed passengers stoically disembarked from the USCG boat and walked past me on the dock, I told them, “We’re going to get you into a safe and warm place.” We took the opportunity to connect personally with these passengers. The victim tracking officer, Giacumbo, had a much more personal connection with many of the passengers assembled inside Arthur’s Landing Restaurant. He had to quickly get the survivors’ names and seat assignments and pass the information on to Command.
Giacumbo did his job methodically and expeditiously and continued helping these people. One passenger had been traveling with his adult son. In the mayhem, they had been separated. The father did not know his son’s fate and feared the worst. Giacumbo worked tenaciously to get solid confirmation that this man’s son was safe and in good health on the New York side. The cross-checking and verifying process took 40 minutes; Giacumbo wanted to have accurate and reliable information from a credible source before he passed the word on to this worried father. During this agonizing 40-minute interval, this inconsolable passenger was emotional and pleading for any information. It was disheartening when Giacumbo repeatedly could only tell this gentleman, “We’re working on it.” When Giacumbo was satisfied he had located the man’s son, the father was genuinely grateful; his relief and joy were shared by all involved.
Naturally, these passengers were anxious to talk with their loved ones. Since they exited the aircraft so quickly, many left their cell phones aboard the plane. NHRFR Firefighter Frank Martinez of Squad 1, who had assisted EMS with triage, offered the use of his personal cell phone to any passenger who needed it. Half a dozen passengers gratefully accepted, including one woman who wanted to call her mother in Australia. She later returned the phone with deep appreciation. Martinez was gratified that he could help.
These are but two examples of the compassion emergency responders displayed that afternoon, among many others.
NHRFR anticipated the need to rescue a large number of people from a craft on the Hudson River. In early 2002, the department considered the problems a developing waterfront community and an expanding passenger ferry service in Weehawken presented. To address these concerns, NHRFR conducted two drills with NY Waterways, an initiative the ferry service’s management supported enthusiastically. All concerned recognized that a mass-casualty incident on the Hudson River would present unique challenges.
On August 21, 2002, emergency responders conducted a full-scale drill, simulating a collision between a passenger ferry and another large vessel. This scenario called for a large number of injured civilians on the ferry and also incorporated the simultaneous challenge of fighting a fire onboard the vessel. NY Waterways, NHRFR, FDNY, NYPD, NJSP, and USCG all contributed assets to this drill. Subsequently, the USCG was designated the lead agency that would control and coordinate any emergency response on the Hudson River.
The first respondersfire, police, EMS, and OEM personnelworked diligently to achieve common goals. This rapidly evolving incident quickly moved through three fundamental phases: rescue; triage-treatment-transport; and law enforcement-investigation. When these phases overlapped, life safety always took precedence. New York City responders addressed incident stabilization by securing the aircraft and environmental concerns regarding aircraft fuel.
No single entity had the capability to meet this challenge alone. This incident required the talent and resources of many agencies but in varying degrees, at varying intervals, and in the proper sequence. This reinforced the need and value of an effective command structure. Each emergency service involved had a significant role; as the incident evolved, each agency’s level of involvement similarly evolved.
Civilian involvement was vital. NY Waterways civilian personnel played a key role in rapidly and successfully rescuing such a large number of people. Similarly, the civilian staff at Arthur’s Landing Restaurant and in the Weehawken Ferry Terminal helped provide a secure and warm shelter for those rescued and was a most welcome contribution.
The biggest shortcoming was the lack of direct communication among the New Jersey and the New York command posts and the USCG. Communication between the New Jersey command post and the FDNY incident commander was too cumbersome. Messages were relayed through NHRFR fire dispatchers, through PAPD, and through NHRFR personnel aboard boats at mid-river who were communicating with FDNY, NYPD, and USCG boats at the aircraft. Although workable, this process was certainly not the most expedient.
Several variables worked in our favor. The incident occurred in daylight; the weather was cold but precipitation-free; and the river was relatively calm, lacking the normal chop and ice. Ferries were staffed and ready since they were preparing for the evening’s weekday rush-hour commute.
This emergency landing and the ensuing rescue operation has been universally acclaimed as the most successful incident of its type. Everyone aboard Flight 1549 was quickly and efficiently rescued without any life-threatening injuries. NY Waterways personnel performed magnificently. EMS promptly treated and triaged all 61 victims taken to New Jersey. The New Jersey State EMS MCI plan was well executed in a timely manner. New York City agencies attended the remainder of the passengers on the New York side of the Hudson.
However, since rescued passengers were taken to various locations, victim tracking/accountability was difficult.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
- An effective incident management system (IMS) is essential to coordinate and control emergency responder activities. This was a classic example of an incident that requires a well-structured Unified Command.
- Interagency cooperation and communication are essential, and their importance cannot be overstated. Personnel of all participating agencies must understand the IMS to be productive and cooperative participants.
- A direct communications link between the New Jersey and the New York City command posts must be established at the outset of any bistate response. As the lead agency, the USCG should also communicate directly with the New Jersey command post. A NHRFR battalion chief is working with FDNY to resolve this issue.
- A large-scale, rapidly escalating incident requires a substantial commitment of personnel to command staff positions.
Although this incident had the potential for severely adverse consequences, the outcome was a huge success in every respect. In assessing this incident, Weehawken OEM Director Welz summed it up best: “This was Murphy’s law in reverse. Everything that could go right did go right.”
MICHAEL T. CRANWELL is a battalion chief assigned to the second battalion of North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue (NHRFR), stationed in West New York, New Jersey. A 35-year veteran of the career fire service, he is the NHRFR chief in charge of hazmat operations, has a bachelor’s degree in fire science, and is a licensed private pilot.