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    With God at the Helm

    A New Jersey Knight was the first to ferry passengers to safety after Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson

    by John Burger 3/1/2019
    Capt. Lombardi stands with Capt. Sullenberger in New York City during the filming of Sully in October 2015. Photo courtesy of Vincent Lombardi


    It all happened very fast: US Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of geese and lost engine power just two minutes after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger brought the airliner down on the Hudson River just four minutes later. And three minutes after the jet hit the water, Capt. Vincent Lombardi arrived in his ferry boat, the first on the scene to rescue passengers.

    More vessels followed, and the swift reaction of Lombardi, his crew and others helped to avert a catastrophe on Jan. 15, 2009. All 155 on board the plane were saved in the dramatic landing, which has come to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

    Some people involved, however, take exception to that nickname.

    “Was it a miracle?” an ABC News reporter asked Capt. Sullenberger on the 10th anniversary of the event.

    “No,” he responded. “It was hard work, on the part of many people and an entire industry over many decades. So it was everyone pulling together, to not let anyone die.”

    Lombardi, grand knight of Montclair (N.J.) Council 1277, acknowledges the skill and quick thinking demonstrated by the plane’s captain and crew. Like airline pilots, mariners go through rigorous training and need to know how to respond in all kinds of unexpected situations to keep their passengers safe. Even so, he saw God’s hand at work that day.

    With 33 passengers aboard, Lombardi’s New York Waterway ferry, the Thomas Jefferson, had just pushed off from the West 39th Street pier in Manhattan. Lombardi spotted the plane just after it had hit the water and was coming to a stop.

    He immediately summoned his two crew members and headed toward the downed plane.

    “Listen, we have a man overboard situation,” he said, warning the crew to prepare for the possibility of encountering seriously injured passengers, or worse. He also recalls praying for the Virgin Mary’s intercession as he sped to the site.

    As they approached, Lombardi slowed the boat to minimize the wake, which might have knocked people off the wings and emergency chutes. He called over the hailer to the frightened airline passengers: “I’m gonna try to angle the boat so you guys can just step off the wing and right onto my ladder.”

    It was a tricky maneuver. Lombardi’s first attempt failed because of the flow of the ebb tide, so he made another approach.

    “I had to hold my boat on an angle over a wing, on a plane that was slowly moving, with the tide pushing it down on me,” he recounted. “I thought, ‘Somebody’s steering this boat, because I can’t handle a boat this well.’”

    The Thomas Jefferson carried 56 wet and shivering passengers to safety; other New York Waterway ferries and a New York City Fire Department boat retrieved the rest.

    Lombardi also recognized divine providence in the lack of ice on the river. An ice floe had been spotted the night before just north of New York City; if it had been in the water where the plane touched down, the incident might have ended very differently.

    “Some people call it timing. I call it one of the miracles involved, that that ice floe in the river stayed to the north,” Lombardi said. “The ice comes in plenty of different sizes. Stack ice that breaks up and freezes on top of each other sometimes is four to five feet thick.”

    Six years after the landing and rescue, Lombardi relived the most dramatic day of his life on the silver screen. He initially was brought on as a consultant for the movie Sully, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as Capt. Sullenberger. But he secured his first film role — as himself — after Eastwood observed him on set.

    He also set Eastwood straight on the way New York watermen talk.

    “I told him, ‘The lines we’re using here aren’t the right lingo. It’s what you’d use on a destroyer in 1942,’” Lombardi recalled. “Eastwood laughed and said, ‘You do what you want, and let the actor who’s going to be talking to you know what to do and what to say.’”

    So, for the rescue scene, Lombardi coached the actors on correct boat language and how to use the equipment.

    But acting was only a brief detour in his life; after the movie premiered, Lombardi hung up his tuxedo and went back to work as a mariner.

    A year later, on Columbus Day 2017, he joined the Knights.

    Lombardi says he had been attracted to the Knights of Columbus from an early age when he served as an altar boy and went to Catholic high school. For many years, however, he was under the impression you had to be invited to join.

    “Finally,” he said, “I just asked a friend of mine, who was wearing the K of C pin on his coat, ‘Oh, by the way, how do you do this?’”

    That friend immediately recruited him into Council 1277, and Lombardi made up for lost time. He began helping to organize fraternal and charitable events and became grand knight a year later.

    Lombardi has also spoken to Catholic audiences about his experience 10 years ago and notes the powerful ripple effects of faith in action. This was driven home to him at the 10th anniversary reunion of the Flight 1549 crew and passengers in January.

    “The young daughter of one of the flight attendants we rescued came up to me,” Lombardi explained. “She said, ‘You know, I might not have a mommy if it wasn’t for you.’”

    As Lombardi continues to pilot passengers across the Hudson day after day, he says he never approaches a challenging task without prayer and an acknowledgment that, above all, God is in control.

    “I just feel that I make better decisions, since my faith took me so far that day,” he said. “Now, every day, my faith guides me.”


    JOHN BURGER writes for and is a member of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Council 16253 in New Haven, Conn.



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