When the Airbus A320 took off from New York City's LaGuardia Airport yesterday, the air temperature outside was well below freezing—around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (–6.7 degrees Celsius). The 150 passengers on board no doubt assumed they would spend the next hour and a half in the cushioned seats of a cozy, warm airplane cabin en route to Charlotte, N.C. Little did they know that just minutes after takeoff they would instead be bobbing on the frigid waters of the Hudson River off Manhattan's west side.
Just minutes after Capt. Chesley Sullenberger orchestrated a near-perfect emergency water landing (after a collision with a flock of Canada geese reportedly knocked out both engines), water began seeping into the plane. Two passengers treated for hypothermia at nearby Saint Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital emergency room said that the water was waist-high almost immediately, according to Gabe Wilson, associate medical director of the hospital's emergency medicine department. According to media reports, some of the passengers were submerged up their necks in water once they had evacuated the plane and awaited rescue.
"They were all shaking from both the [cold] temperature and stress," says Wilson, who treated 11 of the plane's passengers for hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when the body cannot generate enough heat to compensate for the warmth it loses.
Many of the symptoms of hypothermia resemble those of a drunken stupor: sleepiness, clumsiness, confusion and even slurred speech. Doctors also check for shivering, a weak pulse, low blood pressure, and a body temperature below 96 degrees F (35.5 degrees C). (Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, or 37 degrees C.)
Fortunately, none of the passengers that he treated had body temperatures below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), Wilson says, adding that all they needed to warm up were Bair Huggers, special blankets hooked to a heater which send warming air currents over the body.
But what if the passengers had not been rescued so fast? What would have happened if they had spent hours wading or swimming through the Hudson, or in any cold water, awaiting rescue? We asked Christopher McStay, an emergency room doctor at New York City's Bellevue Hospital Center about the potential consequences and treatments for hypothermia.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How long can a person survive in water that is 41 degrees F like the Hudson was when the plane went down?
When you first go into extremely cold water there is this weird response called a cold shock response. People start to hyperventilate immediately. For one to three minutes you breathe very fast and deep, uncontrollably. If you go underwater, you could swallow water and die. …I can't tell you how often this occurs but it's certainly a very real phenomenon. Once that response goes away, you're fine…for awhile.
Generally, a person can survive in 41-degree F (5-degree C) water for 10, 15 or 20 minutes before the muscles get weak, you lose coordination and strength, which happens because the blood moves away from the extremities and toward the center, or core, of the body.