New York, NY - Chasidic Volunteers Put Lives On Hold To Search Hudson River For Missing Man
New York, NY - Day after day, a group of Chasidic men from Rockland County have taken to the Hudson River, braving cold temperatures and murky waters in the hopes of recovering the body of an Orthodox Jewish missing man in order to bury him as quickly as possible in accordance with Jewish law.
The search for the missing man, who suffered from mental illness, began in earnest on the night of Monday, January 25th, a few days after the area resident failed to return home.
Just one day later, a coordinated effort by the Village of New Square, volunteers and local law enforcement determined that the missing man had committed suicide on Friday, January 22nd, with Port Authority video surveillance footage obtained from the George Washington showing the man jumping off the bridge.
Below video: The volunteers on the Hudson River searching.
An initial search by the NYPD and the Coast Guard yielded no results, prompting Rockland County’s Chasidic community to create a dedicated recovery team of their own. Coordinated by Moshe Koff, public safety coordinator for the Village of New Square, the team includes members of Hatzolah of New Square, ‘Ershte Hilf’ of New Square and Chaverim of Rockland. Four Chasidic volunteers from Rockland County took to the Hudson for the first of many efforts on Friday, January 29th, returning home just minutes before Shabbos.
“G-d forbid if this was a family member, we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” volunteer Heshy Gottdiener told VIN News. “The family is in pain. They know he is missing and they can’t sit shiva until we find him. We know that police are helping but we need more.”
Northeast Search and Rescue, a hired search crew, took to the Hudson on Shabbos, with a team of trained dogs capable of detecting drowned bodies and all four dogs pointed to the same area. A day later, the volunteers were on the river again with a sonar equipped boat brought in from Rhode Island, which scanned the area targeted by the dogs, revealing an object that could possibly be a person, located 70 feet below the surface. The group stayed out on the water until midnight hoping to be able to send divers down to investigate, but water conditions were unfavorable, ending the day’s efforts. Divers who searched the area the next day surfaced empty handed.
“The Hudson River is so dirty you can literally see only what is right in front of your eyes,” said Gottdiener. “They were there for hours, but they didn’t find anything.”
Determined to do everything possible, the volunteers tried a different approach on Tuesday, February 2nd, bringing in the Skverer Dayan to perform a segula brought down by the Avnei Nezer to locate drowning victims.
“You get a minyan, say Tehilim and Viduy, give tzedaka and you light a candle and put it on a loaf of bread that you put in the water and the bread leads you to the right place,” said Gottdiener. “We went with the minyan on the boat and the bread drifted near the bridge and stopped in a certain area.”
Members of the minyan were dropped off at a nearby dock and the searchers returned with a crew of divers intent on searching two locations: the one pinpointed by the dogs and the area where the bread had come to rest.
“You can only do the dives at certain times of day,” explained Gottdiener. “We did the first dive a few minutes before 5 o’clock and literally at 4:59 I was looking at the bridge when I saw something falling off the bridge. At the spot where it landed you could see something coming back up every few seconds. I grabbed the binoculars and saw it was a person.”
The decision to abandon the costly search and both dive attempts in order to rescue the person floundering in the water was made within seconds.
“We knew we had a chance to save someone’s life so we dropped everything,” said Gottdiener. “Our divers were connected to the boat by ropes so we pulled the ropes and they came up right away. The captain cut the rope on the anchor, we called 911 and a police helicopter was there in seconds. He went right under the bridge and shined his lights on the person.”
It took just a few minutes for the search teams to reach the victim, who was on her back in the water, kicking her feet and screaming for help, shouting to rescuers that her foot was broken.
“The captain of the boat jumped into the water and brought her to the boat,” said Gottdiener. “We pulled her up onto the boat and one of our men was an EMT so he started working on her and stabilizing her. We all took off our jackets and rekelach and covered her. It was mamash a neis that she was even conscious.”
Scott Koen, commander of the boat, who had also been involved in the January 2009 rescue of passengers of a United Airways flight that landed in the Hudson, described the chain of events as nothing short of miraculous.
“So many things had to happen in a row for this to work out,” said Koen. “She landed beside a boat, that was a quarter of a mile away, right before dusk, with several on board EMTs, divers and a captain who had performed river rescues. The fact that she even survived the jump was unbelievable.”
Koen pulled the boat over to the large stones near the edge of the river where a response team was waiting to transport the woman to a nearby hospital.
Volunteer Yossi Margaretten who placed the 911 call said that he received a call from EMS later that same night, marveling at the incredible rescue operation.
“They told me, ‘Joseph, we don’t remember the last time we pulled someone out alive who had jumped from the GWB,’” said Margaretten. “We were the only boat that was close enough to save her. I couldn’t fall asleep that night knowing that we had been able to save her.”
Tuesday’s fortuitous chain of events behind them, the Chasidic volunteers are continuing in their quest, but being able to get out on the water every day is no small task.
“The companies that we are using are not available every day,” explained Gottdiener. “They are used for building bridges, tunnels, seeing what is going on in the water, but not for a long term search. Nobody even does such a search. We literally beg them every day and pay them extra to come down so that we can continue.”
Both river conditions and the ever changing tides are complicating factors that make the search even more difficult.
“The object we are looking at moves every day because of the tides and we are following it,” said Gottdiener. “The water is extremely deep in some areas and unfortunately, what we are looking for appears to be in that area.”
All of the volunteers have put their lives on hold as the search continues.
“We are working people with jobs and families,” said Gottdiener. “I am usually home every night at 7 PM but last week the only time I saw my wife and kids was on Shabbos. But we have to keep going. We are in agony, because as Jews we are all responsible for each other.”
Volunteers took to the Hudson once again yesterday and search dogs identified three potential search locations. Looking ahead to this week, the search team is bringing in a special team of divers to comb those areas on Tuesday.
“We have commercial diving companies who will be going in,” said Koff. “Each one will have a 60 pound weight and they will be walking on the floor of the water. They will be hooked up to oxygen compressors on the boat and will have hot water going through their suits so that they can stay down there for a few hours.”
If those efforts prove to be fruitless, searchers will be working with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security who will analyze river data, including wind conditions and currents from the past two weeks, to determine where the water may have carried their target.
“He could be 11 miles away or he could be right by the bridge,” said Koff.
The NYPD continues to survey the area daily and all boats on the Hudson River have been asked to be on the lookout as they traverse the waterway. Although costs continue to mount, the volunteers refuse to give up on their quest to find the missing man as quickly as possible. Koff has asked the public to be generous both in saying Tehilim for the niftar and in their contributions to defray the cost of the search.
“Law enforcement keeps telling us that in time the body will surface on its own but to us, this is a yiddishe neshama and we have to do all that we can,” explained Margaretten. “We have to do everything we can to bring a yiddishe neshama to kevuras yisroel. Whatever we need to do, any resources, any ideas we can think of, anything at all that we can do, we will do it, no matter what it costs. Nothing is going to stop us.”
Newly appointed Chief Brad Weidel of the Town of Ramapo Police paid a visit to the search area yesterday in order to express his gratitude to the volunteers for their efforts.
“They are doing a thankless job,” noted Chief Weidel. “I wanted to thank everybody and let them know that their efforts are appreciated. It does mean a lot to our jurisdiction and our community. Unfortunately they had no success yesterday but not for a lack of trying. They are really unbelievable.”
Having worked side by side with the Chasidic volunteers over recent days, Koen praised them for their dedication and determination, noting that he has seen before how members of the Jewish community will drop everything to help someone that they don’t even know.
“These men are putting their entire lives on hold every day,” said Koen. “I have seen this type of effort before but not on this scale and never like this. I am filled with admiration.”
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