But thanks to the pilot's skill, a fast-acting corps of policemen and one 12-year-old boy, he said, "the stars were aligned for us" and he and the pilot were rescued.
Christopher Smidt, a correctional sergeant from Colonia, N.J., spoke at a ceremony honoring his rescuers at City Hall in Yonkers. He and the pilot, Denise De Priester of East Windsor, N.J., were released Monday from a New York City hospital, where they were taken after spending 20 to 30 minutes in the frigid water after the Sunday evening crash.
Smidt said he is a student pilot and De Priester is his flight instructor, but on Sunday they were just out for a sightseeing flight in her newly purchased 1967 Piper Cherokee.
He said neither of them knew what went wrong, but at some point around 5:20 p.m., "We knew the plane was going to go down."
De Priester steered the plane over the river and set it down smoothly, he said, off Yonkers just north of New York City.
"Without her skills, this story would be going another way," Smidt said.
Once the plane was in the water, Smidt said, he called his wife, Karen.
"I was hoping we would make it, but I didn't know," he said. "I told her: `We did crash in the Hudson. Tell the kids I love them.' It was probably not the phone call any wife wants to hear."
The Smidts have a 10-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.
Smidt then called 911, and a dispatcher told pilot and passenger to get out of the plane in life vests before it sank. Getting into the water, chunky with ice, is "nothing I wish on anybody," Smidt said.
After about 15 minutes, he said, "I knew my body was starting to shut down. ... I couldn't paddle."
But soon he heard the sound of a rescue boat and figured, "This is going to be a happy ending."
Several off-duty or retired Yonkers police officers had been at a boat club on shore, and they commandeered a boat and set out to look for the plane.
Officer Daniel Higgins said they figured the chances of finding passengers alive in the darkness were like finding a needle "in a haystack factory."
He took along his son, Daniel Jr., a seventh-grader who hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
When Smidt was pulled into the boat, young Higgins said, "His hands were shaking, so I took off my jacket and he wrapped it around his hands so he wouldn't freeze."
Smidt said he remembers thinking, "Wow, this guy looks pretty young to be a cop."
"It feels good that I helped these people and I'm just glad they're alive," the young rescuer said.
Smidt said he has "aches and pains and some numbness in the fingers, but no complaints."
Asked if he'd ever get in a plane again, he said, "Absolutely."
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