Retracing Steps: Hudson plane crash

January 15, 2009 9:13:09 PM PST
Fred Berretta was just nodding off when the boom jolted him awake. In seat 22-A, Jeff Kolodjay turned to the window to see flames leaping from the engine, just as the floor seemed to drop out.

One row back, Bill Zuhoski interlocked arms with the passengers seated next to him, as the waters of the Hudson River closed in. Vallie Collins quickly pressed out a text message to her husband, Steve, back in Tennessee, and hit send: "My plane is crashing."

US Airways Flight 1549 was not even 5 minutes old.

Was this really happening?

Barely an hour before, 150 passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots had boarded the Airbus A320 for what had seemed the most ordinary of journeys, plagued by nothing more than routine frustrations.

First, the Spirit Airways flight that Kolodjay, his father and four buddies were ticketed for was canceled. Now this one, bound for Charlotte, N.C., was running behind.

But Kolodjay, already wearing his checkered golf cap despite the afternoon's 20-degree chill, was looking ahead. By night, he and his friends would be in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where temperatures in the 50s and a few days on the links awaited.

From where he sat, it looked as if the plane was full. A mother holding a 9-month-old baby. Three executives from Wells Fargo, traveling on business.

By 3 p.m., the flight was running about 15 minutes late. But that was certainly typical for New York's tangled LaGuardia Airport. It was nothing Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III - with 40 years of flying experience - hadn't seen before. Three minutes later, the flier known as "Sully" pushed back from the gate and pivoted his craft toward the runway. At 3:26, Flight 1549 was airborne.

As the plane climbed over Flushing Bay and the Bronx came into sight 1,800 feet below, passengers began to get comfortable. In his seat on the left side of the plane, Berretta, heading home to Charlotte after a business trip, closed his eyes.

The plane continued its ascent - 2,800 feet, then 3,200. The apartment towers of Washington Heights quickly slipped below the plane, with the Hudson River and New Jersey ahead.

But up in the cockpit, Sullenberger knew something was wrong. Less than a minute into the flight, he radioed an air traffic controller at New York TRACON, or Terminal Radar Approach Control, in Westbury, N.Y. His plane had suffered a "double bird strike" and would have to return to the airport.

As the controller began routing the aircraft back to LaGuardia, Sullenberger looked down at northern New Jersey and asked the controller about the runway he had spotted below. What was it? That was Teterboro Airport, a strip popular with corporate jets.

Sullenberger asked for permission to make an emergency landing. In the cabin, passengers, too, were certain things had gone wrong. Berretta sat up straight upon hearing a loud boom, and looked out the window. Smoke was billowing from the engine mounted on the wing outside his window.

"There were fire and flames coming out of it and I was looking right at it," Kolodjay said.

The plane banked left, heading due south over the Hudson and losing altitude quickly - 2,000 feet, 1,600, 1,200, 400.

"Brace for impact!" the pilot barked over the intercom in the cabin.

Berretta leaned forward in prayer. Kolodjay said a Hail Mary.

Moments later, the blue-tailed craft slammed into the water with a jolt.

Sitting in traffic at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 34th Street, construction sales representative Jeremy Maycroft stared west toward the Hudson. Was that a plane?

Inside the cabin of Flight 1549, "it was just controlled chaos," said passenger Dave Sanderson, of Charlotte. "People started running up the aisle. People were getting shoved out of the way."

"There was a mixed emotion of yelling and crying," passenger Alberto Panero said. "But then a couple people just kind of took charge and calmed everyone."

The gray waters of the Hudson lapped at the windows and began pouring into the cabin.

"For a second, I thought I was just going to die right there in the plane," Zuhoski said. "I was going to drown to death."

He clambered up on top of one of the seats. But less than a minute after the plane hit the water, passengers started moving toward the exits. The mother with the baby, seated near the back, tried to crawl over the seat in front of her. "Women and children first!" some of the male passengers shouted. They made their way out the doors at the front and middle of the plane, and onto the wings.

Panero took a look back down the empty aisle of the plane to make sure there was no one else behind him before jumping into a life boat.

The last to go was Sullenberger, who walked the length of the plane twice to make sure all were out.

Outside, the water was frigid, soaking Kolodjay from the waist down. But help was already at hand, with 14 vessels from the NY Waterway commuter ferry service and the Circle Line sightseeing fleet rushing to the scene.

At the helm of the ferry Thomas Jefferson, Capt. Vincent Lombardi pulled alongside, greeted by cheers. People were spread across the plane's wings. Others were in inflatable rafts. A few people were in the water. You see a lot of things in New York's waters, but who would believe this story?

The ferry passengers grabbed life vests and lines of rope and tossed them to the survivors.

"We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying," Lombardi said. "We gave them the jackets off our backs."

One woman had a 3-year-old child, and other passengers on a raft told her to toss the girl to them. She did and then got on the raft herself.

Another lady had a 9-month-old child. They helped her onto the wing and she didn't want to toss the baby to them, but she finally did after people kept encouraging her to do it.

Sanderson said one woman initially refused to get off the plane until she had her luggage, but they eventually persuaded her to get out.

"I felt no fear until I got on the boat," Sanderson said. "I had no balance, I couldn't feel my hands."

Back on shore, the stunned passengers, many wrapped in blankets, walked around and shook each others hands. Some embraced. Nearly all were strangers, but now they shared a unique comradery.

Hours later, Panero marveled to CNN: "All of the sudden, all the strangers we didn't know had a common bond."