More than 15 minutes passed as they struggled to swim in 35-degree-Fahrenheit water. The Hudson River current pushed the sinking Cherokee Six toward the middle of the river, which spans three quarters of a mile between Yonkers, N.Y. and the Palisades—steep cliffs that rise more than 400 feet from the New Jersey Shore.
The boat used by river pilots was the only vessel anywhere nearby when Yonkers Police fielded Smidt’s 911 call from the middle of the Hudson River on Jan. 27. Yonkers Police photo.
More than six miles north of the George Washington Bridge, the currents swept Deniece De Priester’s Cherokee Six—purchased just a few days before—away from the largely empty docks and piers along the riverfront in Yonkers. Detective Lt. Patrick McCormack said the only boat still in the water as dusk fell on Jan. 27 was the launch used by river pilots who meet barges headed upstream toward Albany, and Yonkers officers—both on-duty and off—rushed to that dock just after passenger Christopher Smidt connected to 911 with his cellphone. In the warm-weather months, any number of boats large and small would have been close by, but on a cold day in January there was only one option.
Smidt credits De Priester, who glided to a nose-high flare over the icy water, with saving his life, along with police officers who responded quickly. The rescue boat found the pair struggling to swim toward shore about 25 minutes after the 911 call, about 18 minutes after Smidt and De Priester were forced to abandon the sinking aircraft.
“That water was absolutely no joke,” Smidt said in a telephone interview. He was starting to lose consciousness as the boat approached, and believes he probably would not have survived even a couple of minutes longer: “Absolutely not. They got to us just at the perfect time.”
Survivor Christopher Smidt, at the podium during a ceremony in Yonkers, thanked the police officers and 12-year-old Daniel Higgins II, son of one of the officers, who gave Smidt his jacket in the boat. Yonkers Police photo.
De Priester, in an interview with AOPA Live This Week, said the previous owner had thrown in the life jackets with the aircraft, and neither would have survived without them. While she managed to glide within about 75 yards of shore, the swift current pulled the floating Piper toward New Jersey. De Priester said her training as a flight attendant—a job she held in the 1990s before qualifying in regional jets—kicked in during the swim. She shouted to Smidt to do a backstroke, so as to better protect their mouths and throats from the ice-cold water.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the aircraft has been located by sonar and marked with a buoy; it is not a hazard to navigation, so recovering the sunken Six will be the responsibility of De Priester’s insurance company, an effort to be coordinated with the Coast Guard. The NTSB and FAA are investigating the incident, and recovery of the aircraft may shed light on why the engine stopped “producing thrust,” as De Priester described her predicament.
Both pilot and passenger report the effects of their hypothermia and frostbite lingered for days, with tingling in fingers expected to abate eventually. Smidt said he’s grateful to all involved for saving his life—including the previous owner who purchased the life vests.
“Without those life preservers on we definitely would not have made it,” said Smidt, a student pilot who still plans to earn his certificate.
While De Priester and Smidt landed several miles north of the spot—a busier stretch of river—where Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 four years before, McCormack said aircraft rescues in the Hudson are actually very rare. The river is the only option available to pilots flying low through the VFR corridor, but Yonkers police have not had to mount a similar rescue in 15 years or more, McCormack said—beyond the recollection of officers currently on the force.
Pilot Deniece De Priester spoke to AOPA Live This Week.