Survivors offer praise, gratitude after NY crash

By: AP
By: AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- One minute they were airline passengers. Six minutes later, they were stunned survivors taking on water in the middle of the frigid Hudson River.

All 155 people aboard US Airways Flight 1549 floated to safety on ferry boats and rafts and emergency vessels. On Friday, they were incredulous at their luck and deeply thankful for the pilot's skill and the kindness of strangers - the life-raft passengers who convinced a distraught mother to throw them her baby, the unknown seatmate who helped carry an elderly woman to safety, the strangers who gave up the coats on their backs.

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"I'm doing great today," said Diane Higgins of Goshen, N.Y., who had been traveling with her 85-year-old handicapped mother, Lucille Palmer. The airliner was still climbing away from LaGuardia Airport when she heard a boom and smelled smoke.

Then there was a weird silence. "I think we were all sort of stunned, like 'What's going on?' There was no news from the cockpit at first. I think the pilot was sort of trying to figure out what he should do."

Then Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger came on with a succinct order: Brace for impact. But the impact, Higgins said, wasn't that bad, more like a rough landing on dry land.

"The man is an absolute hero," she said of the pilot - high praise that echoed from other passengers, city officials, emergency workers and ordinary people on New York streets.

"They opened up the emergency exits, and water started coming in," Higgins said. The icy 41-degree river rose up to her knees. That's when she started to panic. "I thought, we've survived the crash, but now we're going to drown."

She had already hugged her mother and told her she loved her, but now she was having trouble getting her down the aisle.

Palmer didn't have her walker. "Finally I said to someone, 'Please help me with my mother.'"

And the someone did. She and her mother boarded the plane's emergency inflatable raft. A commuter ferry boat pulled up, a heavy rope was thrown down and her mother was hoisted aboard. A ferry passenger "with a long down jacket wrapped it around us." He loaned them his cell phone.

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In seat 2A, in first class, sat Mark Hood of Charlotte, N.C. The former Marine major was returning home from a New Jersey business meeting. He had been in Desert Storm, and his military training had included forced helicopter landings in water. He replayed those drills in his mind, but mostly he prayed.

"That's what I did during Desert Storm. I prayed a lot. That brought me a great peace."

So did the pilot's order on the intercom. "He said it in a calm, cool, controlled voice. It was a testament to leadership. Had he let any tension leak into his voice, it would have been magnified in the passengers."

Heading toward the forward exits, and then standing on the wings, the passengers developed their pecking order. Women and children went first into the rafts, then people who had fallen into the river and been plucked out.

Hood said he and Sullenberger were last to board rafts. Someone on one of the commuter ferries threw a knife, which the pilot used to slice the tether binding them to the aircraft. And off they floated, toward a ferry.

Hood felt a rush of adrenaline. "I was stoked. I was so excited." He patted the backs of his fellow passengers. "I was excited to be breathing but overwhelmed to look around at the miracle that all those people came out of it alive."

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Not everyone aboard was self-possessed. A woman in her 60s was adamant about taking her bags. "She was dragging luggage out of the overhead and dragging it down the aisle," said David Sanderson, 47, of Charlotte. "She was holding onto the wing." Another man picked her up and threw her into a raft. Her bags went into the Hudson. "But she kept screaming about getting her luggage," Sanderson said.

All Sanderson wanted was to swim 20 feet. That was the distance between him and a bobbing commuter ferry. The nearest raft was full. He was freezing and tired, and didn't want to wait anymore. So he jumped in and swam to the ferry. The water was so cold it felt like his skin was burning. He lost feeling in his legs. But he made it.

When the plane splashed down, "it felt like an amusement park ride," he said. "The guys next to me interlocked arms. I did what the picture said," he recounted, referring to the seat-pocket card. He braced his hands on the seat in front. He ended up banging his head, but that was all. Those who didn't brace themselves whiplashed back and forth on impact, he said.

Still, the exodus from the wreckage was mostly orderly. "I think there's a lesson to be learned about this," Sanderson said. When pilots are trained correctly, and handle emergencies correctly, "you can survive," he said. "I want to meet the pilot. He is a true professional."

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Donald Jones knew in his gut there was no time to turn back to LaGuardia. As the plane sank low over the river, it "had no power and no engines," he said. Then it dropped. "It kind of jerked you big, then all of sudden it just stopped dead in the water."

On Friday he went home to Florida. "I am grateful to be here along with everybody else on that plane. It was by the grace of God and a great pilot," he said at the Jacksonville airport. He had been one of the first to slide down the emergency landing chute.

"The water was cold, cold. I felt like iceberg," said the executive officer of a medical professional group. "I was worried about hypothermia. (If) I was stuck in that water any longer, it probably would have been problematic.

"As it was," he added, "it took me about two hours to warm up."

But that was the worst of his entire ordeal, he said.

Seemingly out of nowhere, people offered help.

A commuter ferry arrived in less than 10 minutes. "The guy on the ferry literally grabbed my arm and pulled me up," he said. Another man took off his shirt and handed it over. At the airport Marriott, the night bell captain brought a pair of shoes from home for him and went out and bought him some clothes.

"I have to say something about New York," Jones said. "We Southerners think we are the ones with all the hospitality. You just can't imagine what an overwhelming and humbling experience it is," he explained, his eyes filling with tears.

"The outpouring of affection from your family and friends and strangers is amazing. It is nothing short of a miracle."


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