US Airways Flight 1549: New York Marine Operations

By Michael J. Buckheit

“Plane crash in the water.” The radio stack in the office lit up with reports. “Pretty common,” Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel thought.

FDNY Marine Operations, the Marine Battalion, and Marine Company 6 all operate and respond from the Brooklyn Navy Yard (just north of the Brooklyn Bridge). Seaplanes land not far from the Marine Division on the East River and have a Manhattan-based berth. So as usually is the case when a seaplane lands, FDNY receives the report of “Plane crash in the water.” However, on January 15, 2009, FDNY received further information that the plane crash was in the Hudson River. Realizing seaplanes do not normally land in the Hudson, it was “All Hands.”

1) Photos 1-4 by Mike Duffy.

The “Miracle on the Hudson,” as the incident came to be known, was that US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 that took off from LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, glided to a stop in the Hudson River thanks to a skilled crew. Also in the passenger and crew’s favor that day was that the Hudson River at the time was “parking lot flat”: The tide was ebbing (going out, southbound, toward the Verrazano Bridge), and the plane landed with the tide flow. Adjacent to where the plane landed was a commercial ferry berth with the ability to transport large numbers of people. Several miles to the north of the location, in the area of West Point, a large amount of “float ice” (ice that flows down the Hudson from up near Albany, New York, and passes through the Port of New York/New Jersey) was so heavy that an articulating tug barge was held up by it and unable to maneuver properly. If this float ice had reached the area where the plane landed in the Hudson, the results could have been catastrophic. Instead, the plane remained afloat and, for the most part, intact; all passengers were removed and transported, the majority by port partners in the commercial ferry system. Luckily, the incident occurred at a time of year when recreational boating was minimal and vessel traffic was sparse.


FDNY Marine Operations currently staffs three large vessels around the clock: Marine Company 1, a 129-foot vessel (berthed at a temporary location—Pier 40, on the west side of Manhattan, Houston Street); Marine Company 6, a 52-foot vessel (berthed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard); and Marine Company 9, a 134-foot vessel (berthed at Homeport Pier, Staten Island). Marine Company 1 also has a “second piece”—Marine 1A—a 27-foot Safeboat with twin 250-hp outboards, staffed by the officer and two firefighters from Marine 1, which plays a key role in many incidents requiring a reduced reflex time, generally “person in the water” calls, and the like. If, following the response of Marine 1A, Marine 1 is required, the vessel is then backfill-staffed with an engine company.


When Flight 1549 touched down, Marine Company 1A, under the command of Captain Richard Johnson, immediately started out to the reported location. The incident occurred just north of quarters; thus, they were the first uniformed responders on-scene and removed and transported 20 people from the wing of the downed aircraft.

The “Miracle” continued: On this particular day, the incoming officer and members of Marine 1 thought it might snow that evening and left early for their tour of duty. Arriving at work early, Marine Company 1 now had available two company officers. When the incident occurred and Marine 1A responded, the remaining officer requested a “backfill” engine company so he could get Marine 1 underway, but since an engine company was not available, the marine company went short-staffed.


By this time, Marine Company 6, Marine Company 9, and the Marine Battalion were en route to assist. The Marine Battalion received a request to get “small vessels” out to the scene. At this time of year, only Marine Company 1 had a small vessel normally ready to respond; however, during weekdays (day tours), Marine Operations had a Marine Battalion chief and the chief of Marine Operations in the office (off hours on call) as well as supporting staff, including an executive officer and vessel mechanics. To get small vessels to the scene, some improvisation of a crew would be required. The Marine Battalion got underway with two Battalion aides on a 27-foot vessel, while the executive officer recruited two members of Marine Operations (who had been assigned part of the refurbishment of a 1961 fireboat) to provide yet another small platform for operations.

Responding in around the southern end of Manhattan prior to heading northbound to the scene, the vessels made several attempts by department radio and VHF to get a heavy lift crane (barge-mounted) underway, as the airplane’s sinking was a major concern. Unfortunately because of heavy radio traffic, these efforts were unsuccessful. In a few minutes, crews approached the scene: Port partners from New York and New Jersey, agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, commercial entities, fire, and police—were all corralling an airliner as it drifted southbound.


Accountability was another concern, as we did not yet have a definite count of passengers. FDNY Ladder 21 members in exposure protection gear as well as NYPD aviation divers entered the water and performed a quick check of the interior of the plane for passengers. Marine Company 1, assisted by some of the smaller vessels, managed to get two mooring lines through the forward cabin doors, while Marine Company 6 and the aides from the Marine Battalion worked to successfully get a mooring line around the tail. Since we did not know how long this aircraft would stay afloat and with its weight of anywhere between 65 and 77 tons lashed to the starboard side of a 1954 fireboat, Marine Company 1 stationed a firefighter equipped with an ax for the sole purpose of cutting the mooring lines if the situation became unstable.


Because of the time of year, there were no recreational boats to add to the traffic on the water. This made it easy to use the nearby ferry terminal for passenger pickup and dropoff, which helped with accountability.

5) Photos 5-6 courtesy of the FDNY Photo Unit.

Large-scale surface water continues to be one of the biggest challenges you can face as an incident commander. FDNY continually trains for large-scale and interagency events. Interagency cooperation is essential to smooth and successful operations. Who is in charge on water? The U.S. Coast Guard is, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is in charge of a crash even if it is on the water and coordinated efforts of responding agencies including the Office of Emergency Management; the New York Police Department; and federal, state, and local agencies. Ironically, this was the fourth maritime incident in approximately a five-week period that included a marina fire with building exposures; a coal ship fire; and a “reefer” ship, a refrigerated ship with a fire in the hold.


It is important to have memorandums of understanding with port partners, including commercial port partners. Once you board a boat for the response, as rich as your assets/resources/staffing are on land, they’re on land. If resources are out on a boat already operating, it is difficult to release units from on-scene operations to return for additional assets. Consider using commercial assets for transport of additional personnel—on the day of this incident, several units used commercial ferries for transport. It is important to train with the Coast Guard and sit on area maritime security committees to meet the personnel face-to-face.

Once the IC establishes a command post, he must understand the scene may be moving. A hazmat (flowing, leaking fuel, for example) and even the aircraft itself can move. A hazmat was involved—fluid was leaking from a wing when the aircraft was lifted onto a barge. FDNY hazmat personnel helped commercial resources offload fuel by drilling into the wing, in coordination with the NTSB.


FDNY Marine Operations is awaiting delivery of two new 140-foot fireboats (October 2009 and April 2010) to aid in future large-scale water resource or evacuation needs and mass-casualty incidents. Additionally, in September a 63-foot Safeboat with triple jets, 6,000-gpm capacity, and dry chemical fire suppression agent and foam capabilities is expected to be delivered to Marine Company 6.

Through the 2008 Port Security grant process, FDNY hopes to purchase 33-foot vessels for fast response and 31-foot medical boats (both shallow draft). It is also looking into response to whitewater areas such as jetties under bridges, where mobility and maneuverability are limited for bigger boats.

MICHAEL J. BUCKHEIT is a battalion chief and a 21-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), assigned to the Marine Battalion. He attended the first-ever West Point Counterterrorism Initiative, a collaborative project between West Point and FDNY to study and understand the thought process behind terrorism incidents. He is a fire instructor level II and a P.A.D.I. scuba instructor. He previously was a per diem instructor for the FDNY Fire Academy (Annual Education Day).

Video Footage Rescue Timeline of the Crash of US Airways Flight 1549


By Jung Cho and Charles Jennings

Using video footage from a security camera atop a Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) facility in midtown Manhattan, researchers at the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice were able to reconstruct the incident second by second, watching the incident unfold. The camera captured the entire rescue effort, commencing as the aircraft came to a “stop” on the Hudson River (the plane continued to drift downriver).

An analysis of the footage reveals some important facts: The escape of the crew and passengers was conducted without assistance of any rescuers, and the subsequent removal of these crash victims off the aircraft’s wings and onto waterborne vessels relied heavily on private sector vessels, particularly ferries. This raises important questions concerning the need to integrate private vessels into emergency response plans on waterways, particularly near major cities. In addition, the footage itself emphasizes the value in using security camera videos for research and training after an incident.

Jung Cho is a research assistant and Associate Professor Charles Jennings is the director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.



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