As Capt. Brittany Catanzaro eased her commuter ferry, the Thomas Kean, into the Hudson River, she saw an eye-popping sight: a US Airways jet, bobbing on the tide.
"I couldn't believe it," said the 20-year-old, a captain for just five months. "But we train for man-overboard situations. Twice a month. And I knew what we had to do."
The ferries that ply the waters between New York and New Jersey were among the first rescue craft on the scene Thursday when Flight 1549 splashed down after engine failure. The fast actions of their crews, combined with the heroic efforts of emergency responders, produced an amazing result: All 155 people on board were pulled to safety.
From the initial cry of "man overboard!" it took only a few minutes for the first boat to arrive at the jet's side. Captains said they approached cautiously to avoid swamping the jet and sending the frightened passengers standing on its wing into the freezing water.
Some passengers let out cheers when the Thomas Jefferson ferry pulled up, the first of 14 vessels to render aid.
"We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying. ... People were panicking. They said, 'Hurry up, hurry up,'" Capt. Vincent Lombardi said. "We gave them the jackets off our backs."
Lombardi's crew plucked 56 passengers from the jet's wing and life rafts. Wide-eyed ferry passengers, their evening commute disrupted, helped out, tossing life jackets and ropes to the crash victims below.
Catanzaro's boat picked up 24 people.
The fire department in New York got the first emergency call at 3:31 p.m. and was on the scene in less than five minutes. Across the river, Weehawken, New Jersey, police, firefighters and emergency medical crews boarded ferries awaiting rush hour and headed to the plane, minutes after the pilot guided the jet into the water.
New York City police detectives John McKenna and James Coll, of the department's Emergency Services Unit, commandeered a sightseeing ferry at 42nd Street.
As they arrived at the sinking fuselage, Sgt. Michael McGuinness and Detective Sean Mulcahy tied ropes around themselves that were also tied to their colleagues. They stayed on board as McKenna and Coll entered the plane to rescue four other passengers still inside.
High above, divers Michael Delaney and Robert Rodriguez of the New York Police Department dropped from a helicopter into the water. From the air, Delaney said, "it all looked very orderly. The plane's crew appeared to do a great job."
Both divers spotted a woman in the water, hanging onto the side of a ferry boat and "frightened out of her mind," Rodriguez said. "She's very lethargic."
"I see panic out of this woman," Rodriguez said. "She's very cold, so she's unable to climb up."
The two pulled another female passenger from the water as other passengers sat calmly on the plane's flotation devices, waiting to board the ferries clustered nearby.
Both divers climbed onto the wing and entered the plane, and confirmed everyone was off.
One victim suffered two broken legs, a paramedic said, but there were no other reports of serious injuries. Fire officials said at least half the people on board were evaluated for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson heaped praise on the rescue effort.
"They train for these kinds of emergencies, and you saw it in action," Bloomberg said. "Because of their fast brave work, we think that contributed to the fact that it looks like everybody is safe."
Paterson said it was a miracle.
"I think that in simplicity, this is really a potential tragedy that may have become one of the most spectacular days in the history of New York City's agencies," he said.