Ferry captain helps rescue airliner crash survivors


Last Thursday at about 3:30 pm, Capt. Carl Lucas of South Kingston, Rhode Island, formerly of Oak Bluffs, turned on the engines of the Athena, a fast ferry from Rhode Island used in winter commuter service between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Preparing to leave the pier in Weehawken, N.J. for a 4 pm run, Captain Lucas and his crew suddenly caught sight of an airplane drifting south in the Hudson River, with people standing on its wings.

According to news reports, the US Airways Group Airbus A320 jet flight left La Guardia Airport at 3:26 pm. Less than a minute later, the pilot, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger 3rd, reported that a double bird strike had shut down both engines. Unable to make it back to the airport, he proceeded to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.

“It landed in the water less than three quarters of a mile from us,” Captain Lucas said in a phone call Monday. “We didn’t hear anything – we were inside the boat and we had just started up the engines on the boat – and there was no sound from the plane, because it had no engines.”

Captain Lucas immediately rushed the Athena to the accident scene, joining other boats and ferries in the vicinity in rescuing people from the water before U.S. Coast Guard and fire department personnel arrived. While some passengers stood on the airplane’s wings in the water, others made it into life rafts.

“We just pulled up, and at the time, it was just like doing a drill,” Captain Lucas said of his and the crew’s emergency rescue training response. “We’ve done this stuff so many times, that we weren’t panicked. After the fact, I couldn’t believe what happened.”

Including a few elements of sheer luck, Captain Lucas noted. “Sometimes we get a lot of ice on the river – they could have had all kinds of things to complicate that day,” he said. “The river can be really busy with ferry traffic, for one thing, but also you get a lot of big tugboats pulling huge barges – they go up the river, all the way to Albany, so it’s like a highway. Sometimes you’ll look up the river from the George Washington Bridge, and there may be a line of ten big tug units heading upstream – that would have totally been a problem for the airplane.”

The Athena picked up 19 people, including Captain Sullenberger and a flight attendant, from one of the life rafts drifting down the river.

“A lot of people weren’t dressed for being outside, because they had been in an airplane – many had on short-sleeved shirts,” Captain Lucas said. “One guy was in his boxer shorts because he thought he was going to have to swim, and they were all soaked and freezing cold, so hypothermia was starting to kick in. We were just trying to get them up onto the boat as quickly as possible.”

After the rescue, Captain Lucas stood by with Athena near the floating airplane to make sure everyone was accounted for. A fire department diver arrived by helicopter, jumped into the water, and checked inside the plane.

After checking the numbers of passengers rescued by other boats and ferries with Captain Sullenberger’s total count, Captain Lucas took his passengers to be picked up by ambulance at Pier 79 in Manhattan.

The Athena was one of 14 boats operated or chartered by New York Waterway that helped rescue 135 of the airplane’s 155 passengers and crewmembers from the river, according to a report in the January 17 New York Times.

Captain Lucas and his crew operate the high-speed catamaran Athena in Block Island Ferry service during the summer months, for Interstate Navigation, based in Narragansett, R.I. In the winter, New York Waterway charters the ferry for commuter service to and from Milford, N.J., with stops at Wall Street and the World Financial Center in Manhattan, the captain said.

Captain Lucas’s wife Katie sent The Martha’s Vineyard Times an email on January 16, about her husband’s involvement in the rescue operation. “Our family is very proud, so we wanted to pass it on,” she wrote.

Although Ms. Lucas grew up in Vermont and her husband in Gloucester, both lived on Martha’s Vineyard for about five years. Mr. Lucas worked on schooners in Rockport before coming to Martha’s Vineyard, where he ran a boat out of Oak Bluffs for Martha’s Vineyard Parasail in the summers and worked as a self-employed carpenter in the winter. The couple met in 2004, when Mr. Lucas did some remodeling work for Jim Hart, who happened to be his future wife’s boss.

They married in 2006 and moved to Rhode Island about three years ago, where Captain Lucas found his job with Interstate Transportation. They live in South Kingstown with their three-year-old daughter and are expecting another baby girl in April. Ms. Lucas works as a bookkeeper for the Jamestown Press, a local newspaper.

Captain Lucas has worked the last three winters in New York, leaving home Sunday night and returning Friday night, Ms. Lucas said.