Around 11 a.m. on the Friday before Christmas of 2005, a postal truck ran off the road on the 1/9 truck route eastbound in Kearny, damaging the concrete gate that closes the road when the Lincoln Highway Bridge is raised. It also sideswiped the red-and-white warning gate that blocks the road.
This seemingly minor mishap had devastating consequences that would later require the services of a renowned oceanographer in Hoboken.
At the time, Erin Phalon, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), told the New York Times that fixing the gate would take one to two weeks. “This isn’t just a pothole,” she said.
The bridge, not far from Port Newark, needed to be raised at least once a day to accommodate ships entering and leaving the port. The NJDOT decided not to close the bridge but to put local law enforcement on call should the bridge need to be raised.
According to the Jersey City Police Department, three times over that holiday weekend, officers were dispatched to halt traffic so the bridge could be raised.
The steel elevator bridge, which connects Jersey City to Kearny, is what’s known as “vertical-lift.” It is not a drawbridge. Forty-five feet above the water, the vintage bridge works by huge pulleys that quietly lift the center span straight up—horizontally—unlike a drawbridge, which raises the span at an angle in front of waiting motorists.
Lift the Bridge
Sometime before 8 on Christmas night, a tugboat captain heading downriver radioed the bridge operator to lift the bridge. Lt. Thomas Osborne of the Kearny Police Department did not have enough officers to direct waiting traffic. Kearny PD called the Jersey City Police Department, which dispatched Officers Michael Scarpa and Jane Louf to the bridge.
Osborne is now retired, but Kearny Police Captain David Feldhan was on the scene that night. “I was a patrolman trained in traffic reconstruction, an authorized accident investigator,” he said. “The fog was very dense. It was the worst job I’ve handled in my entire career.”
Two Jersey City police officers, attached to the Emergency Services Unit, had volunteered for duty so that their fellow officers who were married could be home with their families. Officer Robert Nguyen, 30, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants, attended Hudson Catholic Regional High School, where he played basketball. Officer Shawn Carson, 40, was a track coach at St. Peter’s Prep and a talented runner in his own right. One friend reported that Carson never put on a “fake tough guy act.” Robert Troy, who was Jersey City Chief of Police at the time, told 07030 they both were “involved in their communities.”
The Emergency Services Unit is an elite squad that handles special weapons, hostage situations, and rescues. “They never know what they’ll be asked to do, from SWAT to psycho calls,” Troy said.
A Dark and Stormy Night
People interviewed for this story remembered cold, rain, fog, snow, low visibility, and, according to Troy, “sleet going sidewards.” The officers had been dispatched in their Ford utility truck to deliver two cases of emergency flares to colleagues directing traffic on the bridge. Troy said the truck would also be carrying special weapons, bullet-proof shields, and riot equipment. The flares would alert drivers to the temporary roadblock about 200 feet from the spot where the bridge lifts.
New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman wrote that at about 8:15, officers Nguyen and Carson crossed the bridge heading west to deliver the flares to their fellow officers, as well as two Port Authority police officers. Reports noted the later-significant detail that a Spanish-speaking pedestrian had emerged from the fog to alert the officers that he had been robbed. It was apparently while Officer Nguyen, who knew some Spanish, was talking to the pedestrian that the bridge had been “raised behind them” to allow the tug to pass. It reportedly takes only 10 minutes to raise the bridge and lower it back into place.
Gettleman’s reporting uncovered the following timeline, according to Jersey City police officials: While Officer Nguyen talked to the robbery victim, Officer Carson placed flares across three lanes of traffic, with Scarpa following and lighting the flares. Officer Nguyen escorted the robbery victim to Louf’s car and then returned to the utility truck. After setting the last flare, Officer Carson also returned to the truck. Scarpa and Louf, along with the two Port Authority officers, knew that the bridge would be raised and not to drive forward but thought that there would be a warning.
But, after lighting the last flare, Scarpa looked up and “saw two taillights melting in the fog.”
Lt. Tom Comey of JCPD, who was giving press briefings for the incident, said he did not recall inaccuracies in the Times’ reporting, noting “I was careful what I put out.”
Deputy Jersey City Police Chief Peter Nalbach later said, “No one knew those two were about to drive off.” He said the bridge made no noise when it went up. Scarpa and Louf and the Port Authority cops ran after the utility truck, yelling for it to stop. Scarpa came within about 40 feet of the vehicle.
From the perspective of Officers Nguyen and Carson in their truck, the roadway simply disappeared beneath them. Had it been a drawbridge, the raised span would have functioned as a huge angled barrier, keeping them from moving forward. The rescue mission to save them—Louf was prevented by her partner from diving into the icy waters of the Hackensack—almost immediately became a recovery mission.
Two hours after the accident, Officer Carson was pulled from the truck, which reportedly landed upside down with a smashed windshield in 50 feet of water. The truck’s shotgun, which was locked in a rack, flew “like a spear through the roof,” according to Troy. Officer Carson was taken to University Hospital in Newark, where he was pronounced dead.
More than 300 police officers from across New Jersey joined the search for Office Nguyen, some on boats, some on the riverbank.
Ironically, according to former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, “about six months earlier, Nguyen received a commendation from the police department for talking somebody down from that bridge. He was going to kill himself.”
Go with the Flow
In 1997, William “Captain Bill” Sheehan founded the Hackensack Riverkeeper, a nonprofit “steward of the watershed.” A lifelong resident of the Hackensack River area, he’s considered a local expert on the river and its environs.
On Dec. 28, Sheehan told The Record, “There is a strong possibility that the poor guy just got swept away in the current, to Bayonne, Staten Island, or … New York Harbor.”
The “poor guy” was Officer Nguyen.
Meanwhile, back at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, Alan Blumberg, director of the department of civil, environmental, and ocean engineering, was reading Sheehan’s account with skepticism.
In a letter to Jersey City Police Sergeant Kevin O’Connell of the Emergency Services Unit and Scuba Team, Blumberg wrote:
I checked the records of water currents in the Hackensack River in the area where Route 1/9 crosses over the river. The records of the Hackensack River are:
8 p.m. very slow currents to the south
9 p.m. no current
10 p.m. to midnight, currents becoming stronger to the north averaging about 3/4 mile per hour
Midnight to 2 a.m., strong currents to the north averaging a little over 1 mile per hour
3-6 a.m., weak currents to the south about a 1/4 mile per hour.
My analysis is that Mr. Nguyen would initially remain in the vicinity of the truck and then move north perhaps as much as 4 miles over the next 4 hours. After that the currents would move him back and forth but with a net movement upstream.
On Dec. 28, Blumberg wrote to Sheehan: “My analysis is somewhat different than yours and I wanted to let you know what I have found.” He provided the above information given to Sergeant O’Connell, adding, “One way to understand that there is a net upstream movement is to consider the salt in the river. The only way for the river to get salty is from Newark Bay to the south. The salt is obviously moving upstream.”
Twelve years after the incident, Sheehan recalled a similar scenario. “With an incoming tide, you concentrate efforts upriver; with outgoing, you look further downriver,” he said. “My knowledge of the river is practical, not scientific.”
Blumberg’s is decidedly scientific. In his letter to Sheehan, Blumberg explained that Stevens had established the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS), an Urban Ocean Observatory, which “provides a wealth of real-time data about tides, waves, winds, currents, temperatures, and salinities in the waters of New York and New Jersey.”
Blumberg told 07030 that he knew Officer Nguyen’s “body would be upstream a little bit, not downstream. In the Hackensack system, the currents at the bottom are upstream, not downstream. The surface goes out, the bottom goes in; it’s called an estuary. I don’t study where the bodies are. I study the currents and systems of the urban ocean.”
For Blumberg, who grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, the ocean has been a lifelong passion. “When I started out in oceanography, I studied the deep and coastal oceans,” he said. “But I really wanted to save lives and protect property, so I directed my research to how the water interacts with cities, and how cities interact with water. I like the practical aspect as opposed to theory.”
He chose Stevens because he “wanted to work on urban oceans and work with brilliant students.”
The Nguyen/Carson incident was the first of many that would involve the practical aspects of oceanography. In 2009, he was involved in identifying the calmest spot on the Hudson for “Sully” Sullenberger to make his emergency landing. Later that year, he helped find the bodies of passengers killed in a plane that collided with a helicopter over the Hudson. In 2014, he helped find the body of 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, who fell into the swirling eddies of the East River. And in 2015, he helped determine that a kayaker had murdered her fiancée in the upper reaches of the Hudson.
“The ocean dynamic is intense and controlling,” he said. “You can’t tell the ocean what to do. It’s powerful trying to harness it. It’s exciting for an oceanographer to study those dynamics.”
He’s pleased that better water quality has brought more people to the Hudson. “On Weehawken Cove people paddleboard, sail,” he said. “It’s fantastic. You wouldn’t see that 30 years ago.”
On Dec. 29, 2005, Gettleman wrote that a diver “knew it the moment he felt it: There was a hand down there. And as he swam closer and peered through the murky water, he realized he had found Robert Nguyen … in a forest of sunken pylons and chunks of concrete on the bottom of the Hackensack River. It was heavy because he was still wearing his police jacket, boots, utility belt and gun, and the divers struggled to lift him out of the water.”
Troy recalled, “Because of the water temperature, he was perfectly preserved and looked like he was sleeping.”
Officer Nguyen was 70 feet from where the truck went into the river.
On Jan. 3, 2006, Blumberg wrote to Sergeant O’Connell: “Our analysis was that Officer Nguyen would initially remain in the vicinity of the truck and then move slowly north.”
Blumberg told 07030, “I felt really pleased that I could use my brain to help address a sad situation. The family was distraught; they couldn’t have a funeral. It felt good to do what I could to contribute to someone’s wellbeing.”
Today, the Shawn Carson Robert Nguyen Memorial Bridge commemorates the tragic Christmas of 2005. —07030