For ‘Miracle’ flight survivors, a decade of thankfulness

|     Deepti Hajela & Tom Foreman Jr     |

NEW YORK (AP) — Children they’ve gotten to see grow up. Grandchildren they’ve been able to meet. New jobs and adventures.

For the people who were on United States (US) Airways flight 1549 on that cold January day in 2009, it’s been 10 years full of milestones and important moments since the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ — when their plane collided with a flock of geese after takeoff from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and everyone on board survived the crash landing into the Hudson River.

It’s a common refrain among survivors, of how that day led to big life changes and small everyday choices, and to feeling joy more readily.

But some also speak of the anxiety that can still rise every time they’re on a flight.

“Life is beautiful. You have to look at every day and say I’m going to make the most of this day because you never know what’s going to happen, and miracles do happen,” said Alyson Bell, of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Steve O’Brien poses for a photo at his home in Charlotte with an editorial cartoon framed with his boarding pass from US Airways Flight 1549, that eventually crash-landed in the Hudson River on January 19, 2009. – PHOTOS: AP
Tripp Harris, who was a passenger on US Airways Flight 1549, the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ airliner in 2009, poses for a photo on the High Line along the Hudson River in New York
Elizabeth McHugh (L) hugs Alyson Bell at the Carolinas Aviation Museum on Tuesday as they reunite on the 10th anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson
Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger poses with some of the crew members and passengers who were on US Airways Flight 1549, which he piloted to a splashdown in the Hudson River in New York on January 15, 2009, after a bird strike took out both engines in the Airbus A320
In this January 15, 2009 file photo, a diver aboard an NYPD vessle prepares to rescue passengers that escaped from the Airbus 320 US Airways aircraft that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York in what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” because everyone survived

The experience had “every single emotion you could ever feel,” said Michele Davis, of Olympia, Washington, who had been flying to Charlotte that day on her way to Seattle.

“And then, ending it all with ‘Wow, I’m alive’ and like this amazement and still kind of in awe. It took quite a while for it to sink in still. It seems unbelievable now,” Davis said.

Survivors, including Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who helmed the controls in the plane’s final descent, gathered on Tuesday at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, where the flight was headed and where the damaged plane is now held.

At 3.31pm, the exact moment the plane splashed down into the river on January 15, 2009, they shared a toast, with Sullenberger counting down the last five seconds.

Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia a decade ago with Sullenberger’s co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles at the controls, three flight attendants and 150 passengers aboard. It was cold, only about minus seven degrees Celsius, but the skies were clear.

“What a view of the Hudson today,” Sullenberger remarked to Skiles, according to National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash.

Less than a minute later, the plane and birds collided at 915 metres.

Both engines stopped. Sullenberger took the controls and told air traffic controllers he couldn’t make it back to LaGuardia. His choices were a small airport for private aircraft in New Jersey — possibly too far — or the river. Sullenberger picked the water.

At 3.31pm, the plane splashed down, somehow stayed in one piece, and began floating fast toward the harbour. Passengers got out on the wings and inflatable rafts as commuter ferries raced to the rescue.

One flight attendant and four passengers were hurt, but everyone else was mostly fine.

“While I don’t know that I would do it again, it certainly gave me some clarity around my life priorities and the importance of my family,” said Pam Seagle, 52, of Wilmington, North Carolina, who was on the flight.

In the aftermath, she made some big life decisions.

She and her family moved away from Charlotte to a new home at the beach in Wilmington.

While she still works for Bank of America, her employer in 2009, she moved to a division that promotes women’s economic empowerment.

She took time to be with loved ones, including a long-overdue break with her sister. She held those moments with family even dearer after her sister’s unexpected death months later in 2009.

That January day 10 years ago “kind of put me on this path to where I am now, and where I’m very happy and content,” she said.

Getting over the trauma of the experience took some time for passenger Steve O’Brien, 54, of Charlotte.

“That first year was tough. You’re scattered. You can’t focus. You’re impatient,” he said.

“There’s this thin place between life and death … and we were at a really thin place and then you get yanked back.”

When he flies now, he looks for the emergency exits and can’t sleep as easily in his seat anymore.

“I’ll be on a plane and I’ll be nodding off or something, and a bump will happen and all of a sudden it comes back, and you just feel this electric scared, overwhelming feeling that hits you in the chest,” he said.

But he says he feels he’s a more relaxed person now with life’s lesser frustrations.

“I realise that little things are to be appreciated, that mundane things are what make up your life,” he said, “and that’s the things you’re going to miss if it’s going to be yanked away from you.”