A dramatic nighttime helicopter lift by the NYPD in New York Harbor saved precious minutes and helped rescue a crewman on a cargo ship who was suffering a heart attack, officials said Wednesday.

The rescue took place on a windy Tuesday night after police received a distress call from the Grey Shark, a 330-foot cargo ship of Panamanian registry anchored in the harbor between the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

"I knew time was of the essence," said Det. Robert Brager, a medic with the emergency services unit, who responded to the call with emergency medical technician Mel Maurice, a fellow Staten Islander.

A small, commercial pilot boat took the two first responders in about three minutes to the vessel, where they were led to the stricken ship engineer, identified by police as Aly Akl, 60, of Egypt, whom they found in the captain's area, said Brager.

"I recognized he was in a lot of distress, he said he had a prior heart condition, pain and difficulty breathing," Brager said Wednesday in an interview.

Brager said he recognized that Akl seemed to be in severe heart failure, with his lungs filling up with fluid.

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Since it would take too long to remove Akl off the vessel into the waiting launch, Brager said a call went out to the NYPD aviation unit, which dispatched a helicopter piloted by Officer Christopher Maher, of Glen Cove, and co-pilot John O'Hara, of the Bronx.

"The fastest and safest way to get him off the ship was with air-sea rescue," Brager said.

Helicopter crew chief Officer Colin Woode and Det. Ralph Gaglioti, 51, of Brooklyn, lowered a rescue basket to the bow of the Grey Shark, where Brager and Maurice secured Akl inside. He was lifted aboard and a second hoist moved Brager to the helicopter.

Woode, 54, of Bay Shore, recalled that the guy wires, lines and antennas on the ship made it difficult to maneuver the aircraft and the rescue basket.

"It was pretty windy out there, I am not going to lie," Brager said.

It took about four minutes to airlift the stricken crewman to Staten Island University North Hospital, where trauma doctors treated him. Akl was in stable condition late Wednesday.

"If he had been on the ship for more than an hour, he probably wouldn't have made it," Brager said. NYPD units constantly train for such rescues but Tuesday's incident was his first. "It is not an easy thing, but these guys are the best," Brager said of the crew.