Daring NYPD Chopper Rescue Saves Cadets from Cliff

Chopper battles wind and darkness to save 2 cadets trapped for hours

It was truly a cliff hanger.

The NYPD saved two West Point cadets stranded for hours on an icy mountain ledge 800 feet above the Hudson River by lowering a detective to them from a helicopter.

Battling darkness and dangerous winds, the officers rescued the two cadets Sunday from an 18-inch-wide mountain ledge where they were slowing freezing to death after nearly eight hours.

"It was the most dangerous thing I've ever done in the police department," said Officer Steve Browning, who has flown helicopter missions for the NYPD for the past 14 years and in the U.S. Army for 14 years before that.

Browning, of Shirley, credited the rest of his crew with heroics in plucking the 20-year-old men from a nearly vertical rock formation at West Point, located about 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point said in a statement that the freshman cadets had gone rappelling down the side of Storm King Mountain on their own until they became unable to proceed at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Summoned by the cadets with their cell phones, local authorities including firefighters responded to the mountain but were unable to reach the cadets, who had tied themselves to a tree branch jutting out between rocks, authorities said.

NYPD aviation unit Capt. James Coan said the police department's rescue helicopter team was assembled just after midnight, when winds that gusted as high as 60 mph in Manhattan on Saturday were beginning to die down. He said a helicopter piloted by Browning arrived at the scene shortly after 2 a.m., when police spotted the cadets by using infrared devices and night vision goggles.

Browning said the cadets, standing in freezing temperatures, had slowly waved a lighted cell phone, making it easier for the helicopter crew to spot them.

He said the helicopter was steadied against winds exceeding 30 mph as it hovered about 60 to 80 feet above the men, the chopper's blades just 20 feet from rocks and trees. The helicopter was kept within a 3-foot radius as the men were secured to a horse-collar style rescue harness dropped from it.

Coan said there was "absolutely no room for error."

By 3 a.m., the cadets were aboard the Bell 412 Air-Sea-Rescue helicopter, where they were treated for hypothermia and transported to Keller Army Medical Center at West Point.

West Point spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff said the cadets remained Sunday at the hospital, where they were being treated for weather-related conditions.

After their rescue, the men were elated and in good condition despite their exposure to cold and wind, pinned so closely to the rocky ledge that they had to stand the entire time, Coan said.

Coan, who also serves as deputy aviation officer for the New York Army National Guard, said the NYPD unit was about the only helicopter rescue resource available at those hours because it operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

He said helicopter rescue units on Long Island and in Albany weren't staffed as late and units in New Jersey weren't available between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

The experience left Browning humbled.
``It wasn't just me,'' Browning said, citing the work done by police detectives Michael Sileo, Fernando Almeida, Christopher Condon and William Stevens, who served as crew members.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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