Anatomy of a Water-Crash Rescue

The US Airways passengers and crew members who survived today's Hudson River crash and evacuation in dangerously frigid water can thank the pilot who made a rare commercial airline water landing. They can also thank the federal, state and local agencies that deftly combined rescue efforts to empty the plane in roughly 40 minutes, rescue and aviation experts said.

But they were lucky too.

The location of the crash was fortunate, "if there can be a fortunate outcome in a situation like this," said Pat Smith, spokesman for NY Waterway, the private ferry system that provides commuter service and tourist excursions in New York Harbor.

The crash occurred "right at the main NY Waterway commuter route ... [where] as many as 10 ferries can respond within minutes at this time of day. Several ferries moved into position to do rescues here."

Ferry crews, he said, are prepared to do water rescues. "These crews train at this regularly. ... That's a fortunate turn in this unfortunate event."

Water rescues can be particularly dangerous, according to Mike Turnbull, owner of Rescue 3 International, a California company that does training in the United States and abroad. "We've had school buses where people were trapped, but usually when they go underwater, there isn't very much time. You can only survive without oxygen for a very short time."

He said one reason US Airways passengers fared so well that the fuselage was airtight and floated. Most swift-water or rescue teams are "not equipped to handle" getting people out of a submerged vehicle without flooding it.

"They float for a little bit of time before they submerge," he said of most vehicles. "There is a window of opportunity to exit."

As he watched rescue crews bring the passengers to safety, Turnbull said, "It's a miracle. I marvel at the crew. They need to be commended for the procedures they set in place prior to the accident and their training. It's a miracle the folks made it out."

Rescue Without Causing Injury

New York City Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said the challenge was to rescue people without causing further injury in such a precarious situation.

"We also have to make sure the rescuers don't become part of the causalities," Long told before a multiforce rescue team was sent to the scene. "We have to stabilize the plane. We are trying to do this in as a quick a fashion as possible to get people out safely.

"It doesn't make it any easier with the water temperature today," which was reportedly about 40 degrees.

Also called to the scene were the New York Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"The whole thing is remarkable, from the flying to the evacuation to the recovery operation," said Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst at R.W. McMcMann in Port Washington, N.Y. "It was all accomplished within less than an hour on a terrible day to be on the water unprotected."

The pilot reported a bird strike before he landed the plane in the water.

Detective Michael Delaney, an NYPD diver, swam to a woman whom he described as lethargic, almost hypothermic. All she could say was that she was "very cold," he said. "The pure size of the incident made this a very different situation to deal with," said Delaney, who had only done small rescues before today.

Cold Waters but a Cool Scene

Although it was never an issue, the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force said that passengers would have been able to survive from one to three hours in water temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees.

Jeff Kolodjay, 31, of Norwalk, Conn., told reporters after he was rescued that the effort was "organized chaos," and that male passengers, in Titanic fashion, allowed women to deplane first.

Kolodjay, who was on his way to Charlotte with family members for a golfing trip, said he saw "fire, flames, coming out of [the engine], and I was looking right at it because I was sitting right there. It started smelling a lot like gasoline."

, pilot,

A few minutes later, pilot said, 'You guys have to brace for hard impact.' That's when everyone started saying prayers. I looked over the water, and we thought we had a chance because there was some water. Got to give it to the pilot, man. He made a hell of a landing."

He said passengers kept their cool.

"We were all making sure that everyone in front of us got off," he said. "Although it was chaotic, everyone kept a cool demeanor. That water got cold but everyone kept a cool demeanor. ... Honestly, it was a cool scene."

Industry analyst Mann said, "It was a really remarkable recovery from the incident and putting the plane down in the water in one piece. They pulled everyone to safety and took over and got everyone out quickly. It's designed to happen that way. People are trained to do that."

The Airbus A320 has four exits -- two fore and two aft -- and passengers exited down ramps that served as rafts.

About three minutes after the reported bird strike, the plane was floating in the water.

Passengers were particularly fortunate, given the fate of those in two other similar crashes. At Logan Airport in 1960, an Electra Prop Jet crashed into Boston Harbor when a flock of starlings flew into the engine: 62 were killed. In the early 1980s, an Air Florida plane that had not been properly de-iced slammed into the water at the 14th Street Bridge, just short of the runway at Washington D.C.'s National Airport.

As for the reported cause of today's crash, "Bird strikes are common and very dangerous," said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes a weekly air travel column, "Ask the Pilot," for Salon.

But, cautioned Smith, until all the facts are in, "one of the worst things we can do is throw out wild speculation about what happened or didn't happen. Some of the earliest theories turn out not to be true."

Smith said the crash "could have been a lot worse.

"Here you had reasonably good weather, a crew that could visually pick out where the plane went down. It could have been at night or in really bad weather conditions with no good options.

"I also like to remind people that we are still in the middle of the safest streak in the history of commercial aviation."

ABC News' Emily Friedman and Brad Middleton contributed to this story.