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Why Vincent Lombardi Plays Himself In ‘Sully’
On Jan. 15, 2009, New York Waterway Capt. Vincent Lombardi commanded the first boat to reach flight 1549, which had made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. His actions that day were remarkable, but he is back in the news now because he is playing himself in Sully, the Clint Eastwood movie about what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”.
“I am very grateful that Vinny showed up so fast,” says Doreen Welsh, a former USAirways flight attendant whose leg was lacerated in the crash. “I had just fought a war in the back of that plane.”
The arc of Lombardi’s life isn’t something he planned for at VHS. At NY Waterway, he trained to rescue people from sinking boats not planes. But just like the characters in so many Eastwood movies, he marshalled every ounce of his experience and intuition in an unconventional way at just the right moment.
Lombardi had started at NY Waterway in 2001 as an armed security guard, but he soon asked if he could work as deck hand. It seemed to square with his aspirations of a running a charter business from his fishing boat. After training at a maritime academy, Lombardi was promoted to captain in 2003. On Jan. 15, 2009, he was just an hour into his shift, on the New York side of the Hudson when, he recalls, “I saw it.” He pointed his boat, with 31 commuters aboard, in the direction of the improbable.
Advantage one: That day, he was at the helm of the Thomas Jefferson, which was outfitted to create only a minimal wake. Lombardi, who maneuvers his way through hundreds of dockings every week in stiff currents and crazy crosswinds, knew that he could get very close to flight 1549 without swamping the passengers standing in frigid, ankle-deep water on its wings. Advantage two: A well-trained crew. As Lombardi watched the water ahead, his crew instructed the commuters to form a chain to pass life vests out to the survivors. “I barely needed to communicate,” he recalls. “They knew what needed to be done.”
Re-enacting the rescue with two smartphones on a tabletop in the Woodland Park Barnes & Noble store, Lombardi demonstrated how he positioned his boat’s rescue platform so that the passengers could walk off the wing to safety. “If I had had a jet boat it would have been a lot easier,” Lombardi says. “I was just going what I had to to keep myself into it. I guess I did it right.” He rescued 56 passengers from the wing and one of the plane’s inflated life rafts, including a bloodied Doreen Welsh, in perhaps no more than 10 minutes and then headed back to waiting New York EMS ambulances. Lombardi gave up his captain’s jacket to the soaked Welsh, and called on his crew and commuters to do the same for the other survivors if they could. “Everyone gave up their jacket,” he notes. He also ordered his crew to get a head count and the survivors’ names, and radioed the other boats on the scene to do the same. (The movie devotes several scenes to Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s concerns that all passengers would be accounted for.)
“Nobody ordered me to do anything,” Lombardi says. “I did what a captain does–take command of his ship and do what he has to do.”
In the blitz of TV interviews that followed that day, Lombardi can often be glimpsed in the sea of rescuers surrounding Sullenberger. He was in two documentaries about the crash. And as Eastwood began to shape the movie, Lombardi was asked to again speak about the rescue on camera. On his first day back at work after his honeymoon, he was notified that he wouldn’t be in the film. “I think, I’m such a failure that I can’t even play myself,” Lombardi quips.
Instead, as filming began, he was given the task of training the actor who would portray him, which he was getting ready to do when Eastwood walked on his boat. “He’s giving me those Dirty Harry eyes,” says Lombardi, momentarily losing his stoic demeanor.“Coach Lombardi,” Eastwood greeted him, a nod to the legendary Green Bay Packers coach. “Gunny Highway,” Lombardi fired back, using the name of Eastwood’s character in Heartbreak Ridge. The next thing Lombardi knew, Eastwood was asking him to walk him through what happened in 2009 and Eastwood turned to a crew member and asked him to put a microphone on Lombardi. The actor who was to have been Lombardi was re-cast as a deck hand.
During the four days of Hudson River filming last October, Lombardi ad-libbed his own lines. He was amused by all the trappings of a big-budget Hollywood movie, like the catering (he split a slice of pumpkin pie with Eastwood) and the assistant who shadowed him from the dressing trailer to the wheelhouse. Then it was off to a studio back lot in Los Angeles for four more days of filming around a plane in a lake with Lombardi in a recreation of the front half of his boat. “It was a 100% perfect match for my boat, down to the scratches,” he recalls. He even spent two days re-recording some of his dialogue.
But despite all the work, Lombardi quickly learned what most film actors know when they walk on to a set: No matter what they do, it might not be in the final movie. “One of the movie news sites wrote that somebody else was playing me,” Lombardi says. It wasn’t until mid-August, just days ahead of the film’s September 9 opening, that Lombardi learned that his scenes were really in the movie.
Lombardi went to the red carpet premiere in New York, and saw the movie on opening weekend with his family, including some cousins that still live in Verona. And in-between his regular shifts out on the Hudson (where he often sees VHS alumni among the passengers), he debates whether he should put out a memoir of Jan. 15, 2009 from the perspective of the rescue crews.
Doreen Welsh, the rescued flight attendant who is now a motivational speaker, has her own thoughts on Lombardi’s future. “I thought he did a great job playing himself. I said to him, maybe it’s time for a career change.”
Photos copyright Vincent Lombardi. Used by permission.
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