Five officers who helped rescue two West Point cadets from a 500-foot cliff in upstate New York over the weekend were honored by New York City Commissioner Ray Kelly on Tuesday, who called the mission a "daring rescue."
A police helicopter navigated around rocky outcrops of Storm King Mountain on Sunday as turbulent winds battered the aircraft in pitch darkness after they got the call around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday in order to pluck the two cadets—freshmen at the U.S. Military Academy who had gone repelling—from an 18-inch ledge.
"At no time did we feel unsafe," said helicopter pilot Steve Browning, who added that flying conditions were the most difficult he's seen since joining the NYPD in 1997. "Was it dangerous? Absolutely dangerous. But with the training that we've had and the training that I've given the individuals that I was flying with, we had no problem with our mindset that we had the skills to do this mission."
Browning had 14 years of military flying experience and was a member of Special Operations forces before becoming a police officer.
Commissioner Kelly congratulated Browning and Detectives Michael Sileo, Fernando Almeida, Christopher Condon and William Stevens on Tuesday.
"It was like threading a 10,000-pound needle through a gale," Kelly said. "It was tricky. It was difficult."
The operation began around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, when emergency rescue authorities from Orange County, New York, contacted the NYPD for help in the rescue 60 miles north of New York City. The cadets had used a cell phone to dial 911, and police officers used the nearest cell phone tower to find their approximate location. But officers had to rely on night-vision goggles and the helicopter's infrared camera to pinpoint the ledge. The cadets turned on their cell phones when the police neared, and Browning said the light was like a "beacon in the night."
The two 20-year-old cadets were suffering from hypothermia by the time the officers arrived.
Kelly said the ragged outcroppings of the mountain came within 20 feet of the helicopter's blades as it hovered in place 80 feet above the ledge. Detective Almeida was responsible for lowering Condon, the paramedic, on to the narrow shelf of rock.
"With the winds the way they were, the helicopter was being rocked up and down, sideways," said Almeida, "and my concern was injuring the paramedic by smashing him on the side of the rock—or possibly when I attempted to put him on the ledge—I could have swept the two cadets off the ledge."
Condon stayed on the ledge one cadet at a time was hoisted off and flown to safety. He said the cadets looked grateful to see him, and kept saying, "Thank you, sir."
The rescue was completed by 2:55 a.m.
"This is a case where skill, experience and bravery combined to save lives," said Kelly.
He said that the NYPD has spent its own resources to help other jurisdictions many times in the past.
"Life, safety comes first," Kelly said, "and we are committed to saving lives and we also expect that we can get reciprocal help as well. That's what happened on September 11th 2001 where lots of municipalities -- agencies -- came, literally from all over the country to help us."