What should have been a routine ride across New York’s East River became an hours-long ordeal after what US authorities described as a power failure left two cable cars carrying almost 70 people dangling hundreds of feet in the air.
Police responding to the incident last night mounted a daring midair rescue, hoisting passengers from the stranded cars using a diesel-powered rescue gondola capable of holding about 10 people at a time.
The effort continued until early today, when by 2.30am (7.30am Irish time) most of the people in one of the cars had been removed, but all 22 passengers in the other remained stuck.
At least a dozen of those stranded in the tramcars were school-age children or babies. Police, who had delivered food, water and nappies to the passengers, said the rescue would take several hours.
Both cars of the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which shuttles commuters and tourists between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island while offering breathtaking views of the city from up to 250 feet high, stopped moving at about 5.15pm (10.15pm Irish time), said Herb Berman, president of the agency that operates the system.
The rescue effort was moving smoothly, but slowly, as police officers in the gondola pulled alongside a car – to within a couple of feet – and hoisted passengers up one at a time.
“It does seem to be working exactly the way it was designed,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of the rescue.
One of the tramcars had 46 passengers plus an operator, the other 21 passengers and an operator, police said; each can hold about 125 people. No injuries were reported.
Tramcars on the system stall occasionally, the last time in September, said Berman, who didn’t know the cause of yesterday’s power cut. Police said the main and backup power systems had failed.
A spokeswoman for Governor George Pataki said the state Department of Labour would conduct a full investigation and review of the incident and the tram before service was allowed to resume.
Robbyn Maier said her 12-year-old son, Dax, was going to Roosevelt Island to play tennis when he got stuck. She talked to him by mobile phone.
“He’s like a trooper through it all,” she said. “He’s really a little hero.”
But, she added, “He’s not going this way to tennis anymore.”
Once safely on the ground, Dax Maier said he told himself not to look down while being rescued.
The mood in his car was almost festive, he said, with people singing and telling jokes.
“Sometimes you can find great people in New York, “ Dax said.
Carlos Gutierrez, a United Nations employee from Spain, was returning home from work with his wife when the tram stopped. He hailed the officers who rescued him as “wonderful”.
“It was very well done by police officers,” he said.
The tram system, which opened in 1976 to carry Roosevelt Island residents to and from midtown Manhattan, is the only commuter cable car system in North America, according to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation website. It has been featured in such movies as Spider-Man, City Slickers and the Sylvester Stallone thriller Nighthawks.
The system travels 3,100 feet at an average speed of 16 mph in about five minutes and has served more than 20 million people, the RIOC site says.
Roosevelt Island, which sits in the East River between Manhattan and Queens and is part of the former, is about 2 miles long and about 800 feet wide. About 10,000 people live on the island, which also is accessible by bridge and subway.