Ferry Operations: A Tragedy Averted

By Joseph Keefe

Training and attention to detail saves lives. Kevin Suarez at Statue Cruises is the living embodiment of that maritime metric.

For any first time visitor to the Big Apple, the trip probably wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. To that end, Statue Cruises’ main focus is to create a smooth passenger experience and serve as the gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for the over 4.4 million tourists who visit both islands annually. Collectively, they run eight vessels that service the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island routes and two smaller vessels with the Liberty Landing Ferry, which Statue Cruises operates, that runs between Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ and the World Financial Center, in lower Manhattan. 
For all but a few passengers, the experience is an exciting but nevertheless routine outing. But, when Statue Cruises employee Kevin Suarez not too long ago put his own life on the line to save a family from the freezing waters of the Hudson when their boat capsized, the selfless act rightfully caught the attention of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA), the Jersey City, NJ City Council and U.S. Park Police in Washington, D.C.
Trained to Act
Suarez started with Statue Cruises in 2011 when he was just a freshman in high school. As a guest service agent, he assisted tourists from all over the world with their ticketing needs to visit the Statue of Liberty. But, in the summer of 2016, he joined the marine department as a Dock Attendant.
His duties include line handling during ferry arrivals and departures and when the vessels are alongside, he ensures that the vessel gangway is secure and then assists passengers’ safe transit back and forth from boat and dock. 
Suarez told MarineNews, “Customer service and ‘Creating Amazing Experiences’ is our voyage at Statue Cruises. I arrived at the waterfront, in part, because my two older brothers worked at Statue Cruises, and once I was old enough to work, they brought me in.” During his tenure at Statue Cruises, 
Suarez has always participated in vessel drills with the Captains and First Officers. With those drills came the knowledge of what to do in the event of an emergency. Eventually, that emergency arrived, and it did, Suarez literally dove in to help. Today, a five-year old girl is alive because of it.
No Time to Think
The emergency came about as Suarez heard the Captain on the PA system ask another vessel to leave the restricted area around the island. And, when that boat did not, Suarez realized that they were in distress as the current and wind was overpowering them and causing the vessel to take on water as it got closer to Ellis Island. As he notified his dock supervisor that the vessel was in trouble, the vessel soon thereafter had capsized. Three children could be seen in the water, along with two adults, but one child still was missing. The father of the children was screaming for help to find his missing young daughter and Suarez immediately jumped in to help. “I swam over and I tried to flip the capsized boat and in doing that, I was able to feel her shoulder,” explained Suarez, continuing, “So, once I felt this – I was able to dive down and grab under her and pulled her up to the surface. She was tangled in the vessel’s tackle and I had to unwrap her before we could swim to the sea wall.”
At this point, the Harbor units came quickly and swept Suarez and the child into their vessels and took them to the other side of the island where the ambulances were waiting. Suarez adds, “Once we were out of the police boats, I helped translate Spanish to English for the EMT personnel. From there, we went to the hospital to get checked out.”
The event underscores the importance of drills and training. In this case, Kevin’s training ensured that he was well versed in knowing the importance of personal flotation devices (PFD), and where the ring buoy was located in case it was needed. Ultimately, it was this training that helped him to advance to the position of Deckhand.
The Right Place at the Right Time
The PVA award – given this past January at the annual PVA convention - rounds out the honors Suarez has received in just this year alone. The PVA award, however, is the namesake of one of PVA’s all time most beloved members, Captain Elizabeth Gedney. During her time of service at PVA, Gedney embodied ‘safety’ every day at PVA. As for Kevin Suarez, he shrugs off his heroism by saying, “It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think. I just heard the cries for help, and I reacted. Once I got in the water I was sort of stunned – but something took over and I am just thankful I was able to help find the little girl and get her out safely.”
The crisis could very easily have gone the other way. According to Suarez, the little girl’s PFD was too big, and it didn’t help her. And, he said, “The waterfront is a beautiful place to be – but if not prepared, it could end terribly. I am grateful to have been in the right place at the right time. In truth, I was covering for a different employee who asked me to switch shifts with him as a favor. I think everything happens for a reason – I can’t explain it better than that.”
Looking ahead, Suarez says his ultimate goal is to become a Police Officer or Fireman. And, anyone who has worked on the waterfront and/or at sea knows that there are few things that prepare you better for a first responder’s position than time spent in a marine-related billet. “I like to help people, and I feel that I can fulfill my potential to help as many people as possible in that field. But in the meantime, I plan on doing all I can to advance in the marine industry and would love to become a First Officer or Captain one day if the opportunity arises. I enjoy working by the water very much.”
Ultimately, Statue Cruises hopes that they don’t lose Kevin Suarez to the police or fire department(s). But, if so, those first responders will get a good man – exactly the kind of professional that the waterfront develops.
(As published in the November 2017 edition of Marine News)
Marine News Magazine, page 86,  Nov 2017

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