YONKERS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – A passenger who survived a small plane crash in the Hudson River said he didn’t know if he would make it out of the icy water alive.
Christopher Smidt said what began as a sightseeing tour around Manhattan turned into a life-threatening situation.
“We experienced a little bit of difficulty,” he told CBS 2′s Alice Gainer. “Then we both realized we were going down.”
Smidt, 43, was on board a single-engine Piper PA-32 piloted by 39-year-old Denise De Priester Kok when their plane crashed into the Hudson River around 5:20 p.m. Sunday near Yonkers.
“Felt the impact and we saw water everywhere,” Smidt said. “I knew the current was strong – I didn’t know it was as strong as it was.”
The landing was quick and could have been far worse, Smidt said.
“It happened very quickly. It was very quick she controlled the landing she did a great job,” he said. “Because of how she landed the plane we were both able to get out of it.”
But the fight for survival had only just begun at that point. Battling a strong current and water temperatures of about 35 degrees, Smidt and Kok fought to stay alive.
“I really thought that was it,” Smidt said. “I couldn’t feel any part of my body.”
When the plane hit the water, Smidt said he quickly called his wife. He said he wasn’t sure if he would survive the frigid waters and wanted to tell her and their two children he loved them.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” he said. “So I said goodbye.”
Then while De Priester Kok called in a mayday, he dialed 911.
“She started yelling at me, and I said, ‘You know, what fight or flight, let’s go,” he said.
His conversation with the 911 operator was panicked:
SMIDT: “We’re in the plane. The plane is taking on water.”
911 OPERATOR: “OK. Is it possible for you to get out?”
SMIDT: “We can get out if we have to.”
911 OPERATOR: “OK. I need you to get out.”
SMIDT: “The plane is going down. Let’s go. Get out. Get out. Get out. Going head first!”
Smidt said he doesn’t remember the 911 call, but he does remember the plane sinking fast.
“As I was holding onto the wing, the plane went down,” he said.
Smidt has been taking flight lessons from De Priester Kok for the past year and a half and credits her experience and quick thinking with keeping them alive.
“Because of how she landed the plane, we were both able to get out,” he said. “That landing that she did was the first part of that rescue operation. She initially saved our lives.”
He said she put a life vest around his neck and the two floated in the water watching the plane sink.
Smidt also remember the off-duty Yonkers police officers who came to his and De Priester Kok’s rescue by boat.
“I kept yelling and yelling, and finally, I heard somebody answer me back; that they knew we were there,” he said. “So it was a very good feeling.”
He had a lot of praise for the officers after the experience.
“I think I said ’I love you,’” he said. “It was a great feeling to be pulled onto the boat.”
On Tuesday, he thanked his rescuers at a ceremony at City Hall in Yonkers.
“Everybody here, they did a fantastic job,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Despite what happened, Smidt said he will fly again.
“I’m in no rush to get my pilot’s license and now I think I’m in even less. Won’t stop flying, but I don’t know where I’m going to go from that.”
He said everyone tells him he has nine lives, and by this point, he has used up 15.
As for the pictures he took on the sightseeing flight, those ended up at the bottom of the Hudson.
Both Smidt and De Priester Kok were treated for hypothermia. The temperature of the Hudson was between 35 and 40 degrees. In those temperatures, you have 15 or 20 minutes before the muscles get weak and you lose strength. They were in the water for 20 minutes.
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