"This is a case where skill, experience and bravery combine to save lives," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who handed the officers a certificate of recognition at a ceremony.
The freshmen cadets had gone rappelling on Storm King Mountain on their own Saturday, the U.S. Military Academy said. They got stuck on a narrow ledge and called 911. Firefighters and other emergency workers went to the mountain but were unable to reach the cadets, who had tied themselves to a tree branch jutting out between rocks.
The police department's rescue helicopter team was assembled just after midnight. The helicopter hovered as rescuers looked for the cadets, and they spotted them around 2 a.m. Sunday using infrared devices and night vision goggles.
The NYPD crew said the mission was a textbook example of a team effort, as they described working in together in extreme conditions of wind and strain on such a delicate operation.
"At no time did we feel unsafe. Was it dangerous? Absolutely," said pilot Steve Browning.
Browning said the cadets, standing in freezing temperatures, had slowly waved a lighted cell phone, making it easier for the helicopter crew to spot them.
"It was like a beacon in the night," he said. Browning has been with the NYPD for the past 14 years and was in the U.S. Army for 14 years before that.
The helicopter hovered about 60 to 80 feet above the men in winds exceeding 30 mph, the chopper's blades just 20 feet from rocks and trees. The helicopter was kept within a 3-foot radius as the men were secured to a rescue harness dropped from it.
Detective Fernando Almeida said he worried about lowering the line down with Detective Christopher Condon and sweeping the cadets off the ledge where they were stranded. By 3 a.m., they were aboard the Bell 412 Air-Sea-Rescue helicopter, where they were treated for hypothermia and transported to Keller Army Medical Center at West Point.
Officers said the cadets were cold and scared, but happy to see them.
"They just kept thanking us," said Detective William Stevens.
The cadets returned to class Tuesday and the academy is investigating.