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Hunt for victims of Hudson midair collision grim job for NYPD scuba divers

Flashlight in one hand, safety rope in the other, two NYPD divers crept along the murky bed of the Hudson River searching for bodies trapped in the helicopter wreckage.

NYPD sonar had pinpointed the doomed tour helicopter in about 30 feet of water near the remains of an old West Side pier.

Visibility in the silt-filled waters was near-zero. So NYPD scuba diver Officer Jeffrey Dowling and his partner, Detective Michael Delaney, felt through the debris by hand, searching for human remains.

“It was tough to see the helicopter, it was basically a ball of metal,” said Dowling, 37.

“The visibility was so low it was hard to recognize what part of the fuselage or tail we were looking at. … It was all done by touch.”

The chopper wreckage had dropped among broken pier pilings, each 2 to 4 feet high, on the rocky, muddy riverbed, making the search that much more dangerous.

The fear, Dowling said, was “getting caught, having your gear grab on to [something].”

Both men were attached to a safety line tethered above water to keep them from being dragged down the river by the Hudson’s strong currents.

Then they found what they were seeking – a body still harnessed in the helicopter seat.

They radioed the NYPD ship above that they had found another victim.

They couldn’t unbuckle the straps, so Dowling cut the seat belt around the man’s waist while Delaney sliced through the shoulder harness.

Then carefully, with dignity, the two divers lifted the remains to the surface Sunday, among the seven victims that have been recovered and identified. An eighth victim has been found but remains trapped.

“I’m just kind of glad to give the family closure,” Dowling said in a telephone interview Monday from an NYPD boat, as he and other divers prepared to go back into the waters to continue their search.

There would be no rescue this time, but other dives have ended in startling saves.

Delaney was part of the NYPD scuba team that helped pull passengers to safety when a US Airways jet splashed down in the river in January, in what’s become known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

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