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Ferry rescuers hailed as heroes

If you have the bad luck to be at the stick of a crippled passenger jet, there may be no better place to land it than in this vigilant and disaster-ready city.

And if you have to land on water, you might as well do it on the Hudson River, just before rush hour in front of a busy ferry boat terminal.

As federal investigators prepared to lift a crippled US Airways jet from the river Friday, praise continued to pour in for the pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, who deftly handled such a dilemma the day before.

New Yorkers also turned their attention to rescuers, particularly the ferry boat crews, which responded quickly to the downed plane and helped save all of the 155 people on board.

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“Those boats were already manned, fully fueled and ready to be put into the evening commuter rush,” said Jeff Welz, public safety director for Weehawken, N.J., on the west bank of the Hudson. At any other time of the day, they might not have arrived for the stranded passengers in time. “Hypothermia would have been an extreme threat,” he said.

New Yorkers, disheartened recently by the plummeting fortunes of Wall Street and scandal, had a new class of heroes to celebrate Friday: members of these ferry crews, who were all over the TV news describing their response with a practicality reminiscent of the rescuers who rushed into the towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

“You don’t have to think much,” said Capt. Manuel Liba, 52, whose crew pulled 14 passengers onto the Moira Smith, named for a police officer killed on Sept. 11. “You just go.”

The police and fire departments also rushed to the scene. Three minutes after the first alert, police had commandeered a Circle Line boat that only minutes before was taking sightseers on a leisurely tour of New York’s landmarks. The officers directed it toward the sinking plane.

Within five minutes of the call a police helicopter was also hovering above the scene. A detective, a trained diver, was lowered into the frigid water. He swam to a disoriented female passenger clinging to the side of a ferry and helped her to safety on another boat.

“The bulk of this event was over in 10 minutes,” said Raymond Kelly, New York police commissioner.

Officials across the city acknowledged Friday that government rescuers were really “second responders.”

The first were the captains and their deck hands, whom Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg praised at a City Hall ceremony. He handed rescuers makeshift certificates for valor and promised “fancier ones” would be coming.

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Everyday New Yorkers were also impressed.

“Those guys have a right to be walking around with their chests out today,” said cabdriver Ronnie Bostos, 58.

The airplane, which was headed to Charlotte, N.C., encountered trouble moments after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport at 3:26 p.m. Preliminary reports indicated that the engines failed after the plane collided with a flock of birds.

The plane was tied to a pier in Lower Manhattan on Friday, with one wing poking out of the water and a swarm of government investigators and divers trying to assess its condition and salvage its contents.

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At a televised briefing, Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said that both engines were missing and that they would be “very important pieces of the puzzle” in determining why the Airbus A320 went down. A police sonar probe was being used to scour the depths of the Hudson.

“We are pretty confident” that we’ll find the engines, Higgins said, “but how quickly it happens, I don’t know.” Investigators began Friday to interview the plane’s crew but said they would not meet with Sullenberger until today.

Sullenberger took calls Friday from President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama. He also spoke to his wife.

Lorraine Sullenberger of Danville, Calif., said during a television interview that her husband was “a pilot’s pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane.” Her two young daughters, grinning shyly, were beside her as she told reporters it was “a little weird” to hear her husband described as a hero.

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All she had to do was go on the Internet to understand the extent of it. A shrine to the tall, white-haired captain had already attracted more than 80,000 fans on Facebook by Friday night, and it was growing at a rate that could surpass similar sites for swimmer Michael Phelps and cartoon star Homer Simpson.

Darren Beck, a 37-year-old passenger from Charlotte, was home Friday and still marveling at the fact he was alive. For him, Flight 1549 was supposed to be the end of a mundane business trip. Beck, a marketing executive, had thought his upgrade to first class would be his big news of the day.

That was until he heard an explosion on the left side of the plane and glanced out at the engine. “I could see the fan blades were still turning, but they were obviously damaged,” he said. “It sounded like something was off-balance in a washing machine -- every time they turned around something went thump, thump, thump.”

The pilot made a left turn, and Beck figured they were headed back to LaGuardia.

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The descent felt smooth and steady, but Beck didn’t realize they were headed for water. It was only moments before impact that Beck understood how wrong things were. “The two stewardesses, who were strapped in the front of the plane, started chanting in unison, ‘Keep your head down, brace for impact!’ . . . I could see out the window the water getting closer and closer -- and I soon realized we were going in.”

The landing was hard, but not as hard as he expected. The plane rolled to the right, but soon steadied. The flight attendants began calmly directing passengers to the front doors, and they calmly complied. Beck recalled that one woman was with a young girl, maybe 4 or 5, who was clutching a stuffed dolphin.

“I remember joking with her: ‘Hey, maybe the dolphin can go for a swim,’ ” Beck said. “At that point there were a couple of people getting kind of teary.”

Beck and others stepped out of the plane and onto an inflatable slide. Others gathered on the wings. Water covered his feet. The plane was sinking. Almost immediately, a ferry appeared. “It was coming right at us,” he said, “And it was a beautiful sight.”

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The last person to leave the plane was Sullenberger. As he boarded a ferry he clutched a clipboard with the list of passengers.

Beck and a few co-workers returned to Charlotte on Thursday night on a private plane his company hired.

He arrived at his house much like he would after any business trip. Except his bags were gone, his shoes were damp, and he was wearing tube socks he received from the Red Cross.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Times staff writers Joanna Lin and James Rainey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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