When NY Waterway Captain Manuel Liba first saw US Airways Flight 1549 descending toward the Hudson River, he wasn’t sure what to make of it, but he quickly knew he had to act. It was around 3:30 on Jan. 15, 2009, the date now known for the Miracle on the Hudson.
Liba, who was piloting the Moira Smith ferry that day, was preparing the NY Waterway vessel in a Weehawken, New Jersey marina for its 4 p.m. shift when he saw the plane, helmed by American Airline captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, dangerously low in the sky.
Even though 10 years have passed since that afternoon, “that moment is still very, very vivid in my mind,” he said.
It looked like “a giant spaceship,” he recalls, and he remembers thinking, for a split second, that the whole thing might be part of a training.
“But then the plane impacted on the water, there was a big splash, and the next thing you see the doors from the plane just popped open and people just jumped out,” he says. “At that moment it clicked: This is serious.”
With his vessel was ready to go, he hopped into action, taking the lines off and making a quick call to management.
“I told them, ‘There’s a plane in the water and we gotta go there,’” he says. “I could see [people] jumping in the water. I just knew we gotta get them out of there.”
That day, the Hudson River water was about 35 degrees and the air temperature was around 20. The 155 passengers needed to be rescued as fast as possible, and NY Waterway was the first on the scene.
Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger along with passengers and crew members from the flight seen on a NY Waterway ferry to celebrate the five year anniversary of ‘The Miracle on the Hudson.’ Getty Images
Captain Vincent Lombardi on the Thomas Jefferson vessel got there first, boarding passengers from the plane’s right wing. Liba steered toward the left wing, his crew threw down the overboard ladder and they helped 14 people up to their deck.
In total, seven NY Waterway ferries saved 143 people. The U.S. Coast Guard and the New York City Fire Department rescued another 12.
Multiple miracles within Miracle on the Hudson, says NY Waterway
It all happened so quickly, but 10 years later, the Miracle on the Hudson retains all its miraculousness to Liba, now 59-years-old. When remembering that day, he ticks off all the other ways the stars aligned: there was no wind, there were no ice chunks in the middle of the river, and it was before rush hour traffic when dozens of boats zip across the Hudson.
Arthur Imperatore, president and founder of NY Waterway, also believes there was more than one miracle that day.
“One miracle was Sullenberger, who was highly skilled and highly trained,” says Imperatore, now 93-years-old. “The second miracle was that we were in the right place.”
That was lucky for the passengers, but the idea that his company and his captains did something heroic doesn’t really stand out for Imperatore. Including the Miracle on the Hudson, NY Waterway has saved around 300 people from the Hudson River in its 32 years of operation, reacting to everything from capsized boats to suicide attempts.
“That’s our business,” Imperatore says. “We just do it.”
NY Waterway Founder Arthur Imperatore. Photo provided
Safety and training has always been so essential to the ferries that the Miracle on the Hudson didn’t really change how NY Waterway operates, though Imperatore says the crews never stop training, preparing and trying to get better.
Liba, still a NY Waterway captain 10 years later, echoed that sentiment. Captains routinely train, and he’s more prepared now than on Jan. 15, 2009, when he was just three years into the job — but he hopes such an incident never happens again.
Still, he remembers the Miracle on the Hudson fondly for the impact it had on the world. Though it was undoubtedly traumatic for the passengers (all of whom survived) and others involved, the immense response to help was heartwarming, he says.
“You could feel it, just the way people were responding. It felt like…America, somehow, was on one page,” he says. “Almost like a message from God, you know: if we really put ourselves together, I think things can just be better.”