Block Island Ferry Block Island Ferry

M.V. Athena Rescue


Captain Carl Lucas

From fishing boats to ferry boats to tug boats, Captain Carl Lucas has worked on the water since he was a teenager. The South Kingston, RI-native had seen and heard a lot over twenty-five years spent honing his craft, with ten of those years working full-time at Block Island Ferry. Still, when engineer John Verissimo of New Bedford came up from the stern deck of the M.V. ATHENA reporting that an airplane was floating down the Hudson River – Capt. Lucas didn’t believe him at first.

As he stepped out, peering from the back of the boat, it still took him a few seconds to process the scene unfolding before him. Capt. Lucas came outside just in time to see the doors of the aircraft open up. The life rafts on the sides began to inflate. People carefully walked out onto the wings wearing life jackets.

For the moment, even seeing wasn’t believing.

“I thought a movie was being filmed. In New York, you see stuff like that, movies being filmed. It took a second to realize that it wasn’t a movie.” Said Capt. Lucas

It was January 15th, 2009. The Athena was docked about a quarter mile away from the landing site in Weehawken, NJ., on a mid-day break between its commuter runs to Manhattan’s Financial District. Interstate Navigation, the parent company of Block Island Ferry, charters out the high-speed ferry to the NY Waterway company during her off-season back in Rhode Island. At around 3:30pm, while the ferry crew was prepping for their afternoon trips, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, pilot of U.S. Airways flight 1549, was forced to land in the Hudson.

With 15-degree winter weather and water temperatures below 32 degrees, what would eventually become a national rescue event was, at that moment, a split decision. Dave Martin, a Narragansett native and also a captain, was working as first mate that day. The two men knew exactly what they had to do.

“There was no command structure. We all just sort of knew. It was almost like an instantaneous, gut response. We knew we had to go out there.” Said Capt. Lucas. The crew of six threw off their lines and took off toward the downed airplane.

M.V. Athena Rescue

M.V. ATHENA on scene with US Airways Flight 1549 floating in the foreground.

Immediately, Capt. Lucas‘ thoughts turned toward fears of the worst. With the icy January temperatures, it would only take minutes for deadly hypothermia to set in if any of the passengers were to fall into the river. In retrospect, the captain still can’t believe that there were only minor injuries.

The Athena herself carries 250 passengers, so it’s better suited for that sort of operation than most smaller rescue boats, according to Capt. Lucas. They could have carried all 155 passengers on the plane—but they wouldn’t need to.

By the time, the Block Island Ferry crew got out there, a few other ferryboats had responded and begun to arrive. There was a little bit of chaos. A passenger on the flight stripped down and dove into the freezing water, attempting to swim toward the rescue boats. People were scared and panicking, some waist deep in water as the airplane sunk. With all of the traffic around the rescue site, Capt. Lucas worried about waking and waves knocking people off the wings and into the water. He maneuvered the vessel carefully, coordinating with his crew, and readying the rescue ladder. The group was prepared for this situation.

Chris Myers, Port Captain and Operations Manager at Block Island Ferry, can attest to that. He oversees the rigorous training programs that prepared the crew to act in such a timely and coordinated fashion. “Man Overboard” training, weekly and monthly drills that teach crews how to turn around rescue-people out of the water, and many of the safety culture skills that Chris has reinforced in his 21 years with the Block Island Ferry company were on display that day.

“I was back in Pt. Judith, in the engine room of another boat, and I got a call that said ‘A plane landed in the Hudson and the Athena’s involved in the rescue. You might want to come up to the office and see this.’…”

Chris watched the rescue play out and talked to Captain Lucas about it later that evening. He fielded various media questions and requests on behalf of the Athena’s crew, some while the rescue was still in progress.

They were busy at work.

The Athena crew ended up rescuing 19 of the 155, including Captain Sully himself and co-pilot Jeff Skiles. They were in one of the inflatable rafts, which had detached from the plane and was drifting away. Capt. Lucas, looking out of his port side window, was able to get in position so that the passengers could climb up.

M.V. Athena Rescue

M.V. ATHENA in the process of rescuing 19 passengers from the plane out of the life rafts, while a news helicopter hovered overhead. A NY Waterway ferry vessel is also nearby.

After a bit of a rush and a little splashing, each of them was able to climb up carefully. Everyone, that is, except Captain Sully.

According to Capt. Lucas, who spoke with the pilot in the wheelhouse of the Athena, Sully was the last person off of both the life raft and the plane, going up and down the aisles twice to account for every person on his passenger manifest. After getting the official 155 count from Sullenberger, Capt. Lucas communicated with the other boat Hudson River boat captains on a “ferries only” radio frequency.

Checking the numbers thoroughly with Sully, the Coast Guard, and the other captains, all 155 passengers were accounted for and safe.

Capt. Lucas and crew got everyone on the Athena to the EMTs waiting at the West 39th St. ferry terminal. People were calling their families, crying out of joy and shock. Some passengers were even making business calls to say that they would be “missing meetings.” The crew got ready to return to work and then they were commandeered by the FDNY to take divers out to the sinking plane. They wanted to confirm that no one was still aboard.

ATHENA Crew - passenger rescue[8][1]

ATHENA crew – passenger rescue: An unidentified passenger of Flight 1549 was assisted aboard the vessel by Mate Dave Martin and Engineer John Verissimo of the M.V. ATHENA on Jan. 15, 2009.

The Athena stood watch and then got ready to transport her afternoon commuters, leaving Wall Street for their New Jersey homes. With an hour and a half, and lives saved, it was back to business as usual.

A year later, Capt. Lucas and crew, along with Chris Myers, returned to New York City for a maritime community ceremony at the 79th St. Terminal, honoring all of the boat crews involved in the rescue. Both the President and Secretary of the Department of Transportation and the Commandant of the Coast Guard attended the event.

To this day, Myers says that the collaborative effort is still surreal for him and that it stands as “a very fine exhibition of seamanship.”

“The measure of a good captain is how he responds to the unexpected. Carl Lucas is a true professional when operating his vessel. He knows his craft. I have no doubt that if Dave Martin were at the helm, the result would have been the same. And what Captain Sullenberger was able to do was truly miraculous. Acts of heroism were front and center that day.”

Capt. Lucas echoed those sentiments. When asked about his lasting memory from that day, he mentioned the fortunate timing and location of the rescue. It seemed as if every detail had worked to help make the operation a success.

“The plane was already hard to see during the day. If that landing happens in the middle of the night or if there aren’t a bunch of ferryboats to pull people out of the water, it could have been a completely different outcome. It truly was miraculous. There’s no other way to put it.”

With a feature film about the incident now released, for many, it will stand as a cinematic time capsule for a national event. For locals like Captain Carl Lucas, Dave Martin, Chris Myers, and the people at Block Island Ferry, it will be a personal reminder of a day when they simply did what they are trained to do—and assisted with a miracle.