YONKERS, N.Y. – Watching the small airplane quickly fill up with icy water and unsure if he would survive, Christopher Smidt made two phone calls.
The second was to 911. The first was to his wife, Karen.
“We crashed in the Hudson River and the plane is taking on water. Tell the kids I love them. I have to go,” Smidt told his wife Sunday evening as his plane sat in the middle of the Hudson River off the shore of Yonkers.
The 43-year-old New Jersey corrections officer recounted the details of his crash Tuesday at a ceremony at Yonkers City Hall to honor his rescuers.
Smidt, who also is a student pilot, was a passenger in the 1967 Piper Cherokee propeller plane being piloted by his flight instructor and friend, Deniece De Priester Kok, 39, of East Windsor, N.J.
After taking off from Trenton-Robbinsville Airport in New Jersey, Smidt said, it started out as a normal flight. The sun was setting over the Hudson and the two flew past Manhattan’s Freedom Tower as they made their way north.
But less than 20 minutes later, something started to go wrong and the plane lost altitude. De Priester was able to get the plane back up to the proper altitude, but, less than a minute later, the plane failed again.
Smidt said he and De Priester knew what was going to happen next.
“We looked at each other and we knew the plane was going down,” he said.
Flying high above the city of Yonkers, De Priester angled the plane toward the river, hoping to avoid hitting anything on the ground.
The landing, about 200 yards from shore, was a success. But the danger was just beginning as the plane almost immediately began to take on water.
After a quick call to his wife, Smidt called 911 where dispatcher Melissa Seymour calmly talked him out the plane.
Smidt said his mind went blank when his body hit the frigid river.
“Everything was out the window at that point,” he said. “I know as soon as I was submerged I was not going to swim to shore."
Instead, he and De Priester spent nearly a half hour floating in the river. Smidt said as the minutes passed, he drew closer to giving up hope.
“I knew my body was starting to shut down,” he said. “I knew I didn’t have much longer. Five more minutes it would have been a different story.”
What he didn’t know was that a group of off-duty and on-duty Yonkers police officers were one their way, piloting a rescue boat they had commandeered from a nearby boat house.
Police officer Danny Higgins, who was driving the boat, said the six-man rescue crew had a general idea where to find the plane’s passengers. But finding them in the dark water was like finding a needle in a “haystack factory,” he said.
After pulling Smidt and De Priester aboard the rescue boat, Higgins’ son, Danny Higgins Jr., gave his coat to the freezing Smidt, wrapping his hands in the jacket.
The 12-year-old, who has dreams of joining the Naval Academy and following in his father’s footsteps by joining the police department, said he was happy to help.
“It feels good that I helped these people and I'm just glad they're alive,” he said.
Both Higginses were honored at Tuesday's ceremony, along with Yonkers police officers Christopher Balezentis and John Twomey and retired detective George Farrell.
The elder Higgins is expected to be promoted to detective on Thursday.