Hudson Rescue Workers Aided by Science

Underwater sensors and forecast models, which provided lifesaving information on wind and water conditions, aided the emergency teams responding to the Jan. 15 US Airways Flight 1549 crash.

Flight 1549 experienced dual engine failure after encountering a bird strike only minutes after takeoff. With no time to reach an airport, pilot "Sully" Sullenberger executed a successful water landing in New York City’s Hudson River. But once the plane was down, frigid temperatures and water created another life-threatening situation for the 155 passengers and crew who needed to evacuate.

Tragedy was averted, however, in part because Sullenberger landed near sensors belonging to the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS), which monitors water and wind conditions – temperature, level, direction, and speed – as well as other environmental conditions and vessel traffic data throughout the New York Harbor and New Jersey Coast regions. Thanks to the availability of data streaming in straight from the river, rescuers were able to position their boats and ambulances to accommodate a swift current and prepare for victims potentially suffering from hypothermia and shock.

“I went down the hall to my colleague’s office and said, ‘Get me the forecast for this site. I want to know what can happen for the next 48 hours,’” said ocean engineer Alan Blumberg of the Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, which operates the Harbor system. “Our campus is right on the water where the airplane landed. So I went to edge of campus and started watching what was going on and had my phone ready for calls. When I ran up the hill, the plane was moving rapidly downstream.”

Response Strategy

Within minutes of the crash, Blumberg and colleague Nickitas Georgas were able to make predictions about conditions based on 10 years of historical data from local waters, and relay a summary to the front lines.

The information helped emergency teams prepare their best response strategy.

The Hudson River actually is what is known as an estuary environment, which is a body of water that connects the ocean to a river, meaning water can move quickly in both directions. Harbor system models told them that currents of up to four knots at the splash-landing site could complicate rescue efforts by dragging the plane south.

“I said, 'You better be prepared to go downstream instead of upstream, because the water is moving fast',” recalled Blumberg, “[First responders] could take the ambulances to a certain areas to wait for the plane to move downstream.”

Falling water levels meant large boats arriving to help would be at risk of running aground. And with surface water temperature at 32 degrees, everyone getting out of the airplane would be at risk of hypothermia within a few minutes.

Not only was this data useful for rescuing all 155 passengers safely, it helped the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later when it lifted the plane out of the water.

The harbor system has capabilities that extend far beyond reading current weather conditions in the harbor. It can forecast ocean and weather conditions throughout the region, track waves, currents and vessels using radar, and serve as a test bed for investigating remote-controlled underwater vehicles.

These underwater sensors and the data they provide are funded and studied by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Office of Naval Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and other agencies.

To read more about the Flight 1549 crash, see AFA-CWA: Flight Attendants’ Professionalism, Safety Training Saved Lives of Flight 1549 Passengers.
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