Capt. Vince Lombardi had just started what was supposed to be a routine trip for his NY Waterway ferry, an eight-minute run across the Hudson River from Pier 79 in Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey.
The run proved to be anything but routine.
When an airliner carrying 155 people plunged into the Hudson on that winter day in 2009, Lombardi’s ferry was first on the scene and what transpired became the most successful marine rescue in aviation history.
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Now, with moviegoers reliving the “Miracle on the Hudson” in riveting suspense with the new film “Sully,” Lombardi is no longer just a hero. He’s also a movie star.
Lombardi, who plays himself in the film, vividly recalls that day.
On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus took off from La Guardia Airport and struck a flock of birds, shutting down both jet engines. With no time to get to an airport, pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson.
As Lombardi headed for Weehawken, he spotted the airliner bobbing in the 36-degree water just off the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Within three minutes, his ferry arrived at the site, where, as many remember from the iconic photo, passengers waited on the wings of the plane. Everyone survived; 143 were rescued by NY Waterway crews from seven boats, while the rest were saved by the Coast Guard and the New York City Fire Department.
"I consider myself lucky to have been there,'' said Lombardi, 39, who lives in Woodland Park, New Jersey. "Every other captain in the company could've done what I did. But to me, it was proof of myself, of my ability and my character.”
Coincidentally, in January 2009, NY Waterway, which operates out of four terminals in Manhattan in addition to several in New Jersey, had begun installing Jason’s Cradles on its boats. A Jason’s Cradle is a ladder-like device deckhands can activate in one minute. Without it, survivors would’ve had difficulty climbing the seven feet from the waterline to the deck of the ferry.
"I can't imagine better equipment unless somebody comes along with a beam-me-up-Scotty device,'' Lombardi said.
For him, the toughest part of the rescue was constantly repositioning his ferry. "The tide kept pushing the airplane toward the boat,” Lombardi said. “I had to keep using the reverse throttle.”
He thought "Sully,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, was spot-on in its depiction of the afternoon’s events.
Lombardi is still a NY Waterway captain, but after his taste of big-screen fame, he might like to dive into more movie roles.
"I didn't actually work with Hanks,'' he said. “But he talked with me and my wife at the premiere. He told me good job. … I wouldn't put myself on the same level as Hanks and Bruce Willis, but if Eastwood approached me and said he'd like to do a remake of ‘The Sons of Katie Elder,’ I'd be on board for that.”
Though rescuing of the passengers and crew from Flight 1549 was an extraordinary feat, NY Waterway has consistently taken pride in its river safety efforts.
“We've always considered ourselves first responders,” Lombardi said. “We're a small navy out there.”
Crews frequently drill in water rescues. Many of their rescues involve capsized boats. In July, NY Waterway Adm. Richard Bennis saved a man who had jumped into the river from the shore.
The family-owned transportation company is credited with more than 100 rescues since Arthur E. Imperatore founded NY Waterway in 1986.
Imperatore directed NY Waterway’s evacuation of 150,000 people from Manhattan on 9/11. In the August 2003 blackout, the ferries transported 160,000 to New Jersey.
Alan Warren, NY Waterway vice president of marine operations, marvels at the dedication and skill of his crews.
"We're not government or Coast Guard,” he said. “We're just normal, everyday people who want to make a difference.”
Warren has learned a lot in his 19 years with the company.
"Honestly, when I took the job, I thought it was all about moving people back and forth, a very leisurely job,'' he said with a laugh. "On 9/11, we knew we had a higher calling.”