The Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad (WVFAS) celebrated their annual Squad Installation of Officers and Membership Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 14, which was held in the Weehawken Township Council Chambers and presided over by Mayor Richard Turner.
Then the following day, on Thursday, Jan. 15, the WVFAS demonstrated why they are worthy of all the accolades.
They were among the first responders to the waterfront evacuation of the passengers aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549, after it made an emergency landing on the Hudson River.
“We give out awards based on the number of calls volunteers answer and their years with the squad,” said Jeff Welz, director of Public Safety for Weehawken and president of the WVFAS. “These are the people that showed up on Thursday [Jan. 15]. Weehawken was one of the leading agencies at the recent plane crash for EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians).”
The WVFAS became a part of the “Miracle on the Hudson” rescue when they coordinated with over 200 emergency response agencies throughout New Jersey to aid the successful rescue of all 155 passengers.
“A [day] before this event, the Mayor praised the ambulance squad for what they mean to this community, and on Thursday they are thrust into a major rescue in the Hudson River,” said Welz. “So what the squad means to this community and the metro area became very evident that day.”
Leaders in the crisis
“I received a phone call that the plane had crashed around 3:40 to 3:45 p.m.,” said Captain Gio Ahmad. “I happened to be at the ambulance building when it happened, so we shot out to Boulevard East.”
Since details were still coming in, Ahmad had initially thought the incident involved a small commuter plane. Once they reach the boulevard and saw the size of the plane, they immediately began to reach out for neighboring agencies and drove down to the waterfront.
“When I saw it was larger than a ferry boat, I realized we needed help,” said Ahmad. “We were going to need more ambulances and more emergency response [equipment], so I activated the Hudson County EMS Task Force.”
Ahmad contacted Director Mickey McCabe via his blackberry phone to bring additional resources, and requested assistance from other local agencies.
“I sent messages to all Weehawken EMTs to come down to the building and get extra ambulances,” said Ahmad. “In about 45 minutes our members got our ambulances [to the waterfront].”
The operation moved quickly. WVFAS brought down three ambulances within 10 minutes of the call. The Hudson County EMS Task Force, which includes all EMS agencies in the north and south Hudson areas, also arrived within in the next 10 to 15 minutes.
“Everyone from Hudson County sent an ambulance to assist us,” said Ahmad.
They received additional assistance from the State EMS Task Force, who had numerous ambulances standing by at the Meadowlands, as well as three helicopters and a SOV-MRCU, which is a Special Operations Vehicle-Mass Casualty Response Unit.
Since the ferries were taking passengers to two different spots along the Weehawken waterfront, the WVFAS split its command post between the Weehawken Ferry Terminal and Arthur’s Landing.
WVFAS Vice President Tom Cheplic and 1st Lieutenant Brian Mera were in command and overseeing operations at Arthur’s Landing.
“Tom Cheplic was the commander at the Arthur’s Landing Evacuation site, where 19 victims were brought, and Captain Gio Ahmad was the commander of the entire EMS and at the Weehawken Ferry Terminal, where 39 victims came in,” said Welz.
“I took command of the Weehawken incident because we were the first on the scene for EMS, and coordinated the effort of all of these agencies with the help of the county coordinator,” said Ahmad. “We treated over 58 patients with 22 going to hospitals.”
Working as a team
Within 40 minutes Weehawken provided over 30 ambulances and portable hospital units, which were coordinated through the WVFAS. Welz and Mayor Turner were also on the scene, overlooking the entire operation between EMS, police and the fire departments.
“I felt so confident that the [WVFAS] knew what needed to be done,” said Welz. “Initially we were told that all 155 were coming to Weehawken because the Waterway [ferries] was doing a majority of the rescue and [taking them] to the new ferry terminal.”
According to Welz, at some point about 86 of the 155 passengers were taken to the Waterway Terminal in New York instead. “But we had operated like we were anticipating all 155 to come,” said Welz.
“Some of them were soaking wet and others were wet from the knees down, but everyone was happy and joking around with each other.” – Gio Ahmad
“Some of them were soaking wet and others were wet from the knees down, but everyone was happy and joking around with each other,” said Ahmad. “They were just happy to be on land and happy to be alive.”
According to Welz, a majority of the people – once they were treated and opted not to go to the hospital – were brought to a secondary shelter at the Weehawken Senior Citizen Nutrition Center, where they waited for transportation to hotels or to be reunited with loved ones.
“It was a long day for our volunteers,” said Welz. “I commend the people of the ambulance squad.”