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Editorial: Yonkers first responders averted disaster

Christopher Smidt, center, who was rescued from the

Christopher Smidt, center, who was rescued from the Hudson River after a plane crash, shakes hands with Daniel Higgins Jr., 12, after a news conference at Yonkers City Hall honoring the rescuers. (Jan. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

It happened in a matter of moments: Five minutes and six of Yonkers finest were the difference between life and death for a New Jersey pair whose single-engine Piper PA-32 plunged into the icy depths of the Hudson River on Sunday evening.

Retired Yonkers Police Detective George Farrell, Yonkers Detective Danny Higgins, Emergency Services Unit Officers Christopher Balezentis and Michael Atkins, and Officers Joe Mahoney and John Twomey commandeered a boat from the Hudson River Pilot House and set out to save the flight instructor and student who were in shock while floating in the frigid waters.

One of the survivors later said he wouldn't have lasted much longer. He figured he had five minutes of fight left in him.

Credit Farrell, a 25-year-police veteran and former member of the police marine unit, for understanding the shifting currents and changing winds of the river, as well as Higgins, a Navy veteran who was returning from a fishing trip with his 12-year-old son, for piloting the boat in darkness toward the screaming crash victims.

Even before the maritime cavalry arrived, 9-1-1 dispatchers were instrumental, telling the pair to get out of the plane before its inevitable plunge into the Hudson's dark depths.

The officers received much deserved proclamations from Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano Tuesday. Higgins said the rescue, in near-total darkness, was like finding a needle "in a haystack factory."

Farrell says hard work and a bit of luck were on their side. But so to was experience, know-how and quick action -- these qualities ensured that this was a heroic rescue and not a tragic recovery.