After Splash, Nerves, Heroics and Comedy

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

The US Airways jet, scene of great drama the day before, was a curiosity in Lower Manhattan on Friday, bobbing in the Hudson.

Published: January 16, 2009

Some passengers screamed, others tucked their heads between their knees, and several prayed over and over, “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” But a man named Josh who was sitting in the exit row did exactly what everyone is supposed to but few ever do: He pulled out the safety card and read the instructions on how to open the exit door.

Tracking US Airways Flight 1549

Coast Guard Video of Plane Crash

US Airways Flight 1549 smacked the Hudson River the way a speedboat lands after jumping over a wake — with a thud that rattled teeth and nerves and stunned the cabin silent. It was as if everyone was waiting for someone else to shout in pain, and no one did.

Then Josh stood up. “Someone tried to pull the door in,” another passenger recalled, “and he said, ‘No, you’ve got to throw it out.’ He twisted it and threw it out.’ ”

Thus began some of the most harrowing minutes of what Gov. David A. Paterson described as the Miracle on the Hudson.

It was a perfect landing and a perfect ending: Everyone survived. But from the moment the plane hit the water to the moment the last person reached dry land, scores of human dramas unfolded.

Friendships were struck on a frigid wing. Chivalrous heroes emerged beside selfish elbow-thrusters in what one survivor described as an “orderly mess” and another called “controlled panic.” There was tension, cooperation and even pure comedy, as more than a dozen passengers recounted in interviews on the day after in New York, Charlotte, N.C., and beyond.

There was the woman in the fur coat who asked a stranger to go back inside the slowly sinking plane to fetch her purse. The man who carried his garment bag onto the wing with him. The mother who had to climb over seats holding her 9-month-old son to avoid a stampede, and the man who eventually helped them to safety. An older woman who walked with great difficulty, and a young one who tenderly kissed her fiancé before the landing.

And the prayers: from simple pleas to the heavens to the Lord’s Prayer, only halfway completed when the jet began to swim.

The flight, which left La Guardia Airport late after a gate change, was packed with a diverse cross-section: 23 frequent-flying Bank of America executives returning home after meetings in New York; a band of buddies on a golf trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.; a 74-year-old man who had just attended his brother’s funeral; a family trying to visit a grandmother before her surgery. And, in Seat 13F, Emma Sophina, 26, a pop singer from Australia, who was working on a song, titled “Bittersweet,” forever linked in her mind now to a day that was anything but.

Martin Sosa, 48, who lives in the West Village and was traveling with his wife and two young children, recalled thinking, “O.K., so you survived the impact, now you are going to drown.” He added, “The plane is slowly sinking and there’s no movement to the outside.”

Inside, as if heeding one collective thought, everyone moved to the rear of the cabin, only to find the exit doors there locked tight and water rising as the tail dipped below the surface.

“If that door opened, everything would go under,” said Brad Wentzell, 31, a patio-door salesman from Charlotte, the flight’s destination. The crowd turned and began moving up the aisle all at once.

“Everybody’s blocking everybody off and there’s a woman and a child,” Mr. Wentzell said. “She’s screaming that people were blocking them off.”

The woman was Mr. Sosa’s wife, Tess, who was carrying their 9-month-old son, Damian. Mr. Sosa was with their 4-year-old, Sofia. “People were just saying, ‘Move, move, move!’ ” he recalled. “Some people were actually gracious enough to let me go by with a child and kind of move my way up.”

But his wife was having a more difficult time, and finally began trying to crawl over the backs of seats. “She didn’t want to get crushed by the stampede,” her husband said. Another passenger heard someone cry, “Get the baby out!”

Mr. Wentzell, the door salesman, moved to help. “I kind of bear-hugged them and picked them up and said, ‘You’re coming with me,’ and carried them to the front to the exit,” he said. He passed them off to a stranger standing at the door, who helped them onto a wing.

But the life raft attached to the plane was upside down in the river, just out of reach. Mr. Wentzell turned and found another passenger, Carl Bazarian, an investment banker from Florida who, at 62, was twice his age. Mr. Wentzell grabbed the wrist of Mr. Bazarian, who grabbed a third man who held onto the plane. Mr. Wentzell then leaned out to flip the raft.

“Carl was Iron Man that day,” Mr. Wentzell said. “We got the raft stabilized and we got on.” A man went into the water, and the door salesman and the banker hauled him aboard. He curled in a fetal position, freezing.

On another wing, Craig Black, a 46-year-old auditor, stood at the tip and thought of the Titanic, as in, he said, “There wouldn’t have been enough rafts for everyone.”

Don Norton, 35, one of three passengers who work at LendingTree.com, a Charlotte-based financial services company, had opened one of the other emergency exits. Then he had to figure out what to do with the hatch, finally tossing it into the river.

He was the first to step onto the slippery wing, and struggled to maintain his balance in his black Aldo dress shoes as he made room for those behind. About 20 or 30 people had joined him when he realized that in his rush to remove the door, he had forgotten to grab a seat cushion — how many hundreds of times had he heard that announcement? At that moment, “the woman next to me handed me my seat cushion,” he recalled. “She had hers and handed me mine. We bonded.”

He needed it, too, because the New York Waterway ferry stopped about three feet from the wing’s edge, so he had to jump in and swim. The cushion kept his head dry. Lucille Palmer, 85, grabbed for her pocketbook. Her daughter, Diane Higgins, 58, told her to leave it.

Dick Richardson, 57, a frequent flier, had, upon takeoff, done his ritual count of the rows between his seat and the nearest exit (eight) before closing his eyes to try to go to sleep. On impact, he moved his BlackBerry from his belt clip to the inside pocket of his blue-gray tweed blazer.

Debbie Ramsey, 48, of Knoxville, Tenn., said she hesitated a minute over leaving her Eddie Bauer down jacket, and her carry-on bag containing the chocolates she had bought for her 2-year-old grandson, but grabbed her seat cushion instead.

Dave Sanderson, 47, a salesman for Oracle, said he saw a woman in her 60s pulling her luggage out of the overhead bin. “I just started screaming, ‘Get out, get out!’ She said, ‘I need my stuff,’ ” Mr. Sanderson said. “Another gentleman who did a great job — he’s a hero — actually picked her up and threw her on the lifeboat.” Her luggage was floating in the river.

David Sontag, who had just buried his brother in New York, recalled a man in the doorway, demanding the passengers count off as they passed; now he believes it was the hero-pilot himself, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III.

Nick Gamache, 32, a software salesman, had moments earlier sent his wife a text message that read, “Planes on fire love you and the kids,” so he was naturally in a hurry to update her. But he paused as the pilot told him to carefully step into the raft.

On the wing, Laurie Crane, 58, watched the water rise to her waist. “I’m like, ‘I’m not supposed to drown,’ ” she said. “ ‘This isn’t the way I’m going to go. Keep fighting.’ So I did.”

The Sosa family made their way slowly onto the right wing. “We were being very cautious because we didn’t want to lose hold of our children, and many people were trying to grab our children away from us,” Mr. Sosa said. Indeed, Mr. Sanderson — who said that since 9/11 he says a silent prayer every time he boards a flight — recalled Mrs. Sosa “standing there screaming.”

“The ladies on the lifeboat said, ‘Give us the baby, give us the baby, throw us the baby,’ ” Mr. Sanderson said. “And she wouldn’t do it.” Eventually, he said, “the other guy who was on the wing and myself sort of grabbed her and heaved.”

There was no room on the overcrowded raft for Mr. Sosa. “It was kind of first come first served,” he said. “I have to say, some things could have been done a little differently to get my wife and kids on board first.” Mr. Sosa ended up chest-deep in the frigid water, and was soon unable to feel his legs — his fingers stayed numb through Friday — but the children were fine, and joined their parents on the “Today” show on Friday morning.

“My daughter said, ‘Daddy, the plane turned into a boat,’ ” Mr. Sosa recalled.

The rescue boats streamed toward the jet from all directions. A police helicopter hovered just above the river, and divers dropped down.

Aboard one of the ferries that helped in the rescue, Captain Sullenberger took a metal clipboard with the manifest up to the wheelhouse, and used the emergency-services radio network to get a count from all the other vessels: Everyone was alive.

Billy Campbell, 49, a television executive, had watched water seeping through seams in the plane’s windows and, seeing the clogged aisles, started climbing over the seats instead. His waterlogged shoes gave him little traction, so he would put a knee on a seat, fall and keep moving. He reached the exit on the right wing, but it was blocked. The exit on the left was clear, but the wing was full of people.

The pilot and the flight attendants had beckoned Mr. Campbell to the front, and he ended up on the same raft as the pilot.

“I said, ‘Thank you,’ and held his arm,” Mr. Campbell recalled, “and he said, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”

Maryann Bruce, 48, of Cornelius, N.C., said that while others were “thinking of dying, I was actually thinking about living. I wanted to see my kids and my husband.”

Ms. Bruce said she had survived disasters before, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, where she worked then. “I must have nine lives,” she said. “I was vacationing in Honolulu and had to be evacuated for a tsunami. I was skiing in Denver and had an avalanche. I flew into the eye of a hurricane. I was at the big L.A. earthquake.”

At a downtown hotel where survivors waited to meet with airline representatives, one passenger ordered a martini. Before long, nine of the passengers were exchanging stories, and wine was poured, and someone decided he had seen enough of New York City for one day, thank you. The group returned to La Guardia, where they boarded US Airways Flight 2591 to Charlotte, which took off just before 10 p.m.

“They applauded us,” said Mr. Wentzell, the door salesman. “We had some wine and we thought about just how great it was to be alive.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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