Our New Year’s Eve was one of extremes.
At midnight, we rang in 2014 watching the Statue of Liberty fireworks from the bridge of the 210-foot yacht, Hornblower Infinity (we’d been asked to assist with docking).
A few hours later, we were cutting across the Hudson in our RHIB returning to Liberty Landing when we heard the Coast Guard call: vehicle submerged in the Morris Canal. Our marina.
Bjoern put down the throttle. My mind raced: What could we do if we’re first on scene? Would we be able to break a window? Jump in and pull someone out?
What if we saw a face and hands banging at the glass as the car filled up and went under?
Since Bjoern’s a trained emergency responder I knew he’d figure out the logistics. But when we arrived on scene about three minutes later, there was no car — not even bubbles. Yet there were plenty of eyewitnesses and Jersey City police officers standing on a nearby dock, pointing to a spot on the water where they saw the car go down.
An eyewitness said she thought she saw three people sinking in the maroon Altima.
We searched the surface with flashlights for any signs of disturbance, and to allow potential escapees to know which way was up. We did that for about five minutes before the Jersey City Fire Boat arrived from the other end of the marina. They seemed to have no divers on board and started feeling around for the submerged car with boat hooks.
Bjoern thought that was inadequate and put out a call on the radio for anyone with divers in the area to get to Morris Canal. We were relieved to see the NYPD Harbor Unit and Scuba Team arrive moments later.
Since our RHIB enabled the quickest access to the site, two divers jumped aboard and we ferried them to the spot.
The air temperature was 24 degrees Fahrenheit, the water about 49 degrees, but this elite team of responders jumped right in. You could hear the shivering in their voices over the diver-to-surface radio. They “mowed the lawn” searching for the car, keeping a strategic back-and-forth pattern in less than an arm’s length of visibility.
With no luck on the first round of passes and running low on air, two relief divers were sent in. They held the same pattern and finally located the car, which had drifted with the current about thirty feet away from where it plunged into the canal.
One diver surfaced with a jacket. The other came up with a victim, and swam him to the dock. Even though it had been more than an hour, the NYPD was optimistically treating it as a search and rescue operation. Several factors were in the victim’s favor: he was young, the water was cold. People had been revived in less forgiving circumstances.
As EMS attended to the victim, two more divers splashed. The eyewitnesses said there were three people in the car; only one was accounted for. They scoured every inch for the others, but found no one.
To be certain, the officers interviewed the eyewitnesses on the dock once more, who now said it was possible only one person was involved in the accident after all.
NYPD decided the raising of the vehicle should be conducted in daylight, when the Army Corps of Engineers could get to the scene. They thanked us for use of our boat, and we thanked them for their impressive service.
We got back to our slip at about 6:15 am, and drove home as the sun was rising. News reports told us that our victim didn’t make it. He was only 22.
I’m still processing the contrasts of that night: how it’s possible, in one moment, to feel that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be – and then in just a few short hours, you’re reminded that sometimes you will be just minutes too late.