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I shouldn’t be alive: Hudson River rescue

By John W. Kennedy

Mark T. Sorey wanted to do something special for Jared Fazio and Jamie Lawson, the youths who had raised the most money for Speed the Light last year at Fountain of Life Center, the Assemblies of God church in Burlington, N.J., where Sorey serves as a volunteer youth worker.

Sorey, who works as an electric and gas appliance repair technician, is also a licensed pilot. He came up with the idea of a flight around New York City as a reward. Because of the heavy air traffic and his unfamiliarity with Big Apple landmarks while navigating, Sorey hired local instructor John Eberle to help familiarize him with the lower-altitude Hudson River corridor in his 1978 single-engine Piper Warrior III.

It turned out to be anything but a dry run.

MAYDAY

Mechanically, everything checked out during the January 2 preflight run-through at the Lumberton, N.J., airport. Minutes later, Sorey gazed in awe as he gained an air perspective of the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero.

Without warning, the plane’s propeller sputtered and died. The men tried to restart the engine. Nothing happened.

Eberle, 43, and Sorey, 44, had reviewed emergency procedures only two days earlier. Now, at an altitude of just 900 feet, they had little time to prepare for a water landing. Yet the men remained calm, so unruffled that authorities initially questioned the authenticity of their Mayday signal.

“Engine out,” Eberle intoned over the emergency frequency. “Two miles north of George Washington Bridge. Going into the water.”

Immediately afterwards, Eberle slowed the plane, kept the nose upright and splashed softly into the river before coming to an abrupt stop.

The pilots knew the aircraft would sink quickly. After they got out of their seats, Eberle stood on the left wing, Sorey on the right.

Sorey normally put his cell phone in a flight bag in back of the plane, but he believes the Holy Spirit prompted him to keep it in his jacket pocket this day. He dialed 911 to provide further location information, then inverted his black nylon jacket to its reversible orange side to be more visible.

“I don’t believe in luck, coincidence or happenstance,” Sorey says. “God is ultimately in control of all things, from the greatest to the most minute detail.”

About 90 seconds after crash landing, the fuselage began to sink. The pilots climbed up the tail, but that submerged in the river rapidly as well.

“Before I made the cell phone call I made the more important call,” Sorey says. “I said, ‘Jesus, help us! I don’t see any helicopters or boats around and it looks hopeless.’ ”

After several minutes of treading water in the 38-degree river, the men began to drift apart. Sorey couldn’t see Eberle anymore. Sorey knew they couldn’t swim to shore, not only because of the distance but also due to the strong current against them. The cold water sapped his stamina. He started to feel a paralyzing numbness.

Sorey sensed death could be imminent. He told the Lord he didn’t want to die — yet he didn’t feel the need to cling to earthly life.

He began confessing and asking forgiveness for sins. He didn’t want anything to separate him from God when he entered the Kingdom. Sorey repeatedly glorified God, despite the circumstances.

“If this is my day to die, Lord, it’s in Your hands,” Sorey declared. “Even if I die, I want to go out praising You.”

Now lethargic and struggling to keep his face above the mucky water’s surface, Sorey spotted a New York Police Department helicopter about 100 yards away, lifting Eberle to safety.

Eberle told the crew he had a companion somewhere nearby.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Coast Guard chopper flew overhead — as it had done three times before. Sorey knew that rescuers are trained to watch for motion, so he mustered all the strength he had left to move his arm.

COAST GUARD RESCUE

No rescuers would rappel down to pick Sorey up that day. But Sorey is grateful that God had devised a series of events in his rescue, just as He had in the crash landing.

Coast Guard Aviation Electrician Ben Ryan Bradley, based with the Department of Homeland Security in Atlantic City, N.J., normally sits behind a desk. However, the flight mechanic scheduled this day had a cold, and personnel must be 100 percent well to participate in patrols. Bradley volunteered to fill the spot.

The patrol’s commanding officer had been delayed, so only Bradley and pilot Lt. Scott Sanborn took to the skies. Six miles away from the mishap, they heard the distress call.

A typical search and rescue helicopter has four crewmembers. But the Coast Guard patrol helicopter had only two men — and no rescue diver or medical equipment on board.

With a depleted crew, the likelihood of seeing a man in a river clogged with discarded gas tanks, tires, 55-gallon drums and beams didn’t appear promising. The debris-filled Hudson is a half-mile wide in some spots. By midday, dozens of small planes and helicopters jammed the airspace, further hampering the rescue attempt.

Sanborn began flying a “ladder” pattern in which he made tight turns every half-mile.

“We tried to cover as much ground as we could as quickly as we could, but thoroughly, too, so it’s a tradeoff,” Bradley recalls. The helicopter flew over Sorey three times before Sanborn saw that orange jacket.

Just as he felt he could stay afloat no longer, Sorey felt a basket thump against his left shoulder. In a last-ditch effort to stay alive, Sorey grabbed the basket with his left arm and wrist.

“It was just like holding onto the foot of the cross,” Sorey says.

Bradley recognized that the exhausted and freezing Sorey had no energy to pull himself into the cage. With no vessel in sight close enough to pluck Sorey to safety, Bradley had to devise a way to save him — without drowning him. Hovering 30 feet above Sorey, Bradley let out some slack on the cable, dragged the basket through the water and essentially scooped Sorey up in the container as it filled with water.

“It was like the hand of God pushed me in,” Sorey says. “There was no way I could move my legs.”

Still conscious, he collapsed in the basket. Sorey had been in the river for 45 minutes.

“He was the coldest moving person I’ve ever come in contact with,” says Bradley, who estimates that Sorey only had a minute left before his face sank below the surface for the last time.

“Everything lined up for Mark that day,” Bradley says. “The commanding officer’s decision not to fly delayed us for an hour. If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have been in the area.”

Bradley, who also is a trained emergency medical technician, conducted a quick trauma assessment of the patient. Sorey couldn’t answer coherently beyond providing his first name.

A two-minute flight landed him at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, the premier trauma hospital in the region.

Sorey kept correcting medical personnel who told him of his luck to be alive. “The hand of God rescued me,” he says. “It’s only by God’s grace that I’m alive.”

Eberle suffered mild hypothermia, with a body temperature down to 92 degrees upon arrival at Jacobi. Sorey suffered only trace hypothermia, with his temperature dipping to 95 degrees. He had no cuts, no blunt injuries, but stayed hospitalized for two days.

Five days after the wreck, Sorey went to church to testify about the Lord’s protective hand.

“God orchestrated everything,” Sorey told the congregation. It’s a testimony he continues to share.


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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