Passengers in NY plane ordeal marvel they're alive

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, center makes his way past photographers at North Newton High School after touring the scene near Roselawn, Ind., where American Eagle flight 4184 crashed, killing all 68 people aboard, Nov. 1, 1994. &#40;AP Photo&#47;Beth A. Keiser&#41;</span></div>
January 15, 2009 7:15:50 PM PST
Shock, relief, gratitude. Most of all, the soaked and freezing passengers of Flight 1549 just seemed amazed to be alive. All of them.

"You've got to give it to the pilot," said Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., who was aboard the US Airways jet that ditched in the frigid Hudson River after an apparent collision with a flock of birds. "He made a hell of a landing."

"He was phenomenal," echoed Joe Hart, of Long Island, a salesman with investment firm ING.

"He landed it - I tell you what - the impact wasn't a whole lot more than a rear-end (collision). It threw you into the seat ahead of you. Both engines cut out, and he actually floated it into the river," he added.

Hart said he waited out on the wing of the plane, with others, as the water level rose from his knee to his waist.

"Most of the panic occurred while we were out on the wings or in the water, and the ferry boats were coming." But, he added, "I couldn't believe how fast they showed up. They were right there to pick us up."

"I knew I was safe," he said. "The big guy upstairs didn't want me." Later, Hart had recovered enough to send a humorous text message to an Associated Press reporter: "I'm certain this will get me an upgrade on my next flight!"

Soon after the plane took off from LaGuardia Airport for Charlotte, N.C., passenger Albert Panero felt "an impact and some sort of loud noise." He started smelling smoke. "Everybody could tell that something was kind of going on, it wasn't just turbulence or something like that."

Soon, Panero said on WABC-TV, "I knew that we were going down."

"You think of all the things that are about to happen," he said. "I thought, 'I guess this is it. I guess I'm going to die.' I turned my phone back on because it's got GPS. I figured if anything happened, they could find me - or find whatever's left."

But then, the plane hit the water, and Panero was surprised that no huge explosion ensued. "I looked outside, and you could just see the water start creeping up pretty quick," he said. "So that's when I said, 'OK, we gotta get out of here."'

At first, there was "a mixed emotion of yelling and crying," Panero said. But it didn't last. "A couple people just kind of took charge and calmed everyone. Everyone got to the exits, and whoever was there just opened them up."

Most of all, Panero was grateful to the pilot. "I can't believe he managed to land that plane," he marveled.

Kolodjay, 31, who had been headed to a golfing trip in Myrtle Beach, N.C., said he noticed a jolt and felt the plane drop. He looked out the left side of the jet and could see one of the engines on fire.

"Then the captain said, 'Brace for impact because we're going down,"' Kolodjay said. "It was intense." He said some passengers started praying. He said a few Hail Marys.

"It was bad, man," Kolodjay said. But he and others spoke of a sense of calm and purpose that quickly descended on the passengers and crew as the plane started filling with water and rescue boats swarmed to the scene. They decided women and children would be evacuated first.

"Then the rest of us got out," he said.

Passenger Fred Berretta, who lives in Charlotte, was on his way home from a business trip. He had one message for the pilot and co-pilot: "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said.

After the impact, dozens of shivering passengers wrapped in white blankets evacuated aboard rescue boats.

"Their feet and legs were wet." said Dario Gongora, 60, a supervisor on the Circle Line ferry service, which offers sightseeing rides around Manhattan. "It looked like they were in shock."

Kolodjay was unhurt, but some other survivors were taken to hospitals for treatment of hypothermia or other injuries. It was not immediately clear how many required treatment.

Police scuba divers arrived at the scene to see a woman in her late 30s or early 40s in the water, hanging onto the side of a ferry boat.

She was "frightened out of her mind," suffering from hypothermia and unable to climb out of the water, said Detective Robert Rodriguez of the New York Police Department.

The detectives swam with her to another ferry and hoisted her aboard. As they were wrapping that up, another woman, who was on a rescue raft, fell off. So they put her on a Coast Guard boat.

About 70 passengers were taken to the New Jersey side of the river.

Some looked "smiling and happy to be alive." Others were "a little stunned," said Jeff Welz, director of public safety for the city of Weehawken. "I'm looking at them and saying, 'I don't know if I'd look good if I went through what they went through."'

He said the injuries included hypothermia - the water was 42 degrees or less - and bruises. None appeared life-threatening. Emergency medical service worker Helen Rodriguez was one of the first rescuers on the scene.

She saw stunned, soaking passengers, saying "I can't believe I'm alive." The worst injury she saw was a woman with two broken legs.

At St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, the feeling was the same.

"The few I talked with know how lucky they were," said emergency room Dr. Gabriel Wilson.

Eight survivors were in good condition there, while two were still being evaluated, including a female crew member with a possible bone fracture, Wilson said.


Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill, Deborah Hastings, David Caruso, Jocelyn Noveck, Jennifer Peltz and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.