By Barton Gellman and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 16, 2009
NEW YORK, Jan. 15 -- Darren Beck, a 37-year-old marketing executive, had just settled into Seat 3A of a Charlotte-bound passenger jet Thursday afternoon when he heard a sickening thump.
"We were gaining altitude, everything seemed normal, and there was a very, very loud bang on the left-hand side," he said in a telephone interview, hours later, from the unexpected venue of Manhattan's Pier 79. Beck watched aghast from his window seat as the spinning jet turbine began to kick and slow down, "almost like something was stuck in a washing machine."
"You'd hear thump-thump-thump-thump, and then the pilot came on, and all he said was, 'This is the captain speaking. Brace for impact,' " Beck recalled. The flight attendants, still strapped in for the initial ascent, "kept saying, 'Keep your head down -- brace for impact.' They said it over and over, chanting it."
Thus began the drama of US Airways Flight 1549, which was apparently crippled by a midair encounter with geese and ditched into the Hudson River within minutes of takeoff from La Guardia Airport. Facing life-and-death choices, the pilot steered away from a catastrophic crash in the Bronx or in northern Manhattan, but the 155 passengers and crew soon faced new peril as their 80-ton aircraft began to sink in the river's frigid gray current.
Scrambling for the exits and carrying the helpless, they perched ankle- and then knee-deep atop the wings as an improvised armada of tour boats and ferries streamed to their rescue. It was a race to escape before the listing Airbus A320, submerged already on the starboard side, disappeared.
Most of the passengers stood in shirtsleeves, fleeing without their life jackets, and a few fell into 36-degree water on a day when the air temperature barely reached 20 degrees. Some passengers began to wail, but witnesses described a scene of level-headed teamwork to rescue the weak and infirm, including an infant and an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
Pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, who steered the aircraft to a skittering splashdown that left the fuselage intact, was hailed as a hero by aviation experts and political leaders including Gov. David A. Paterson, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and President Bush. The mayor said Sullenberger, as befits a captain, twice walked the length of the sinking plane to make sure he was the last to depart.
Molly Schugel, 32, who sat in a mid-cabin exit row, said that screams were audible and that there was "definitely fear in the plane." But she and her seatmates used their last airborne moments to scan the emergency diagrams on the exit hatch.
"We're all studying the door, what to do," she said. "Every plane you fly has different handles. The guy next to me, soon as we hit the water, he opened the door within seconds, and we got out."
Schugel, a Bank of America executive, came to regret her choice of three-inch heels.
"They were very cute," she said, but they offered little purchase atop a wing slick with jet fuel and water. "We had to go out to the very narrow part to let more people out on the wing. I was trying to take them off, holding onto the lady next to me, and then I'm barefoot on the wing. I don't know if it was a wave or what, but I slid right off the wing into the water."
Submerged to her shoulders and gasping, Schugel said she knew she would not last long in the cold. A stranger from the row in front of her, risking his own footing, reached to fish her out. Someone inflated the emergency ramp, but in the commotion, it overturned, and no one could clamber aboard.
Before police and Coast Guard vessels could respond, the Hudson's commercial flotilla converged on the scene. Ferry, tour boat and tugboat crews tossed life vests to the stranded passengers and began hoisting them up ladders. Soaked and shivering, Schugel had to plunge back into the river and swim a few feet to reach the first arriving boat. On deck, she then turned her attention to a fellow passenger who had suffered a deep gash in her leg and was bleeding heavily.
Grabbing a belt from one of the men, she recalled: "I tied it as tightly as I could, and we elevated her leg to stop the bleeding. The most amazing part was, I saw no pushing, no shoving. I saw nothing but help and compassion."
Bill White, president of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on West 46th Street, watched the events unfold a few hundred yards offshore from the deck of the decommissioned aircraft carrier. He said, "When you would think there would be profound chaos, there was profound calm."
Witnesses reported one engine in flames as the pilot banked south at the George Washington Bridge, lining up for a high-risk landing he could attempt only once. Moments before, he had reported a double bird strike in which geese clogged and snuffed out both his engines.
Sullenberger, the pilot, has an extensive background in aviation safety, according to his online résumé, with 40 years of aviation experience and about 20,000 flight hours in jets, propeller planes and gliders. He flew F-4 jets in the Air Force before beginning his civilian career, and now gives speeches on aviation safety, the résumé indicates
Safety experts expressed surprise that a commercial jet with modern engines could be brought down by a flock of birds. Bird strikes are common and cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to commercial aircraft but rarely lead to crashes nowadays.
Al Haynes, the pilot of a United Airlines DC-10 hailed as a hero for helping guide the stricken plane to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, said Sullenberger and his co-pilot did a fantastic job keeping the plane away from populated areas. He said the crew was also lucky because the crash occurred during daylight and good weather.
"The water was the only choice he could make," Haynes said. "He had to make a quick decision, and I give him and his crew a lot of credit. The guy just did a tremendous job getting it onto the water."
By some amalgam of skill and providence, Flight 1549 came to rest smack in the center of converging ferry lines run by New York Waterway and Circle Line. "I could not believe what I saw -- 20 yards to the left or right, and it could have hit a pier or a building," White said.
Within minutes, White's telephone began to ring. The security staff at Bank of America, one of the Intrepid's biggest funders, said 22 of their employees -- Schugel among them -- were aboard the flight and asked for urgent help in caring for them.
Capt. Ed Weber of Circle Line tours said firefighters ordered him to steer his nearest boat, the Circle Line Manhattan, toward the sinking plane.
"They shot onto this boat really fast and said, 'Get out,' " he said.
Divers plunged bareheaded into the water. They searched inside and beneath the plane, then called the all-clear.
"It's a miracle," Weber said. "It's cold. I was freezing to death. I don't know how they survived."
Beck, the marketing executive, said he had flown all over the world on business but never bothered to read the seat-pocket emergency cards. "I wasn't sure what to do" as the plane fell from the air, he said later. "I tried a few different positions. I ended up putting my arms on the chair in front of me and covering my head and face. All I could think about was that movie 'Airplane' where they say, 'Assume crash positions,' and everybody lays on the ground."
Shaking as he held his mobile phone, he summed up his afternoon: "Not that I'm an expert in plane crashes, it being my first one, but it went fairly smoothly."
Staff writers Heather Landy in New York and Del Quentin Wilber and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington and staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.