National News

Passengers in N.Y. plane ordeal marvel they're alive

Posted January 16, 2009 4:24 a.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2009 12:45 p.m. EST

— Shortly after midnight Thursday, the Charlotte airport became the scene of reunion and celebration for nine survivors of a plane crash on the Hudson River only hours earlier.

Survivor Mark Hood hugged his wife, Lisa, and their twin children, Maggie and Hayward.

"There was a point in time today when I didn't think I'd seem them again until we all got to heaven," Hood said. "I'm glad we got some more time together."

Brad Wentzell, of Charlotte, looked forward to a quick ride home and then seeing his 2 1/2 year-old daughter again.

"She's in bed right now," Wentzell said. "And when I get home, I want to take my nose and put it by her ear and her warm little body and give her a nice kiss from daddy, because I'm alive."

Wentzell's wife couldn't meet him at the airport, but he wasn't without family. He walked off the plane with his "Uncle Carl" – Carl Bazarian, a fellow survivor he met only hours before but felt had become as close as family.

Survivors said they felt gratitude and amazement for the pilot – Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, 57, of Danville, Calif. – whose skills brought Flight 1549 to a splash landing after an apparent collision with a flock of birds at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

"The captain was the last one off the vessel, and the captain was the last off the life raft – like  true leader," Hood said.

"Actually, it was an incredible landing. This guy was phenomenal, because we were hitting the Hudson River with full impact," Bazarian, of Amelia Plantation, S.C., said.

For Valerie Collins, the most terrifying moment came in the back galley of the plane – water seeped in from exits that would open only a crack, and dozens of passengers bore down on her, frantic to get out. Seconds before, the 37-year-old mother of three from Maryville, Tenn., believed she would die when Flight 1549 hit the Hudson River. Now, she thought she was going to drown.

But Collins saw daylight at the front of the plane and shouted out, "You can't get out this way. ... Go to the wings! Keep moving, people! We're going to make it. Stay calm."

Dave Sanderson, 47, of Charlotte, who works for Oracle Corp., was headed home after a business trip. The married father of four was in seat 15A, on the left side of the plane.

"I heard an explosion, and I saw flames coming from the left wing,'" he said. "Then it was just controlled chaos. People started running up the aisle. People were getting shoved out of the way."

Kolodjay, 31, who had been headed to a golfing trip in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said he noticed a jolt and felt the plane drop. He looked out the left side of the jet and saw 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.

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.

One woman had two small children who couldn't swim. She held on to the infant, and Collins, aboard an emergency raft, grabbed hold of the older girl, who was not yet 3.

"She was so scared. She had a little blue blanket, and she just was hunkered in my lap," Collins said. "She just kept biting on my left arm – she never said a word." The group was pulled aboard a rescue vessel.

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.

Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, many for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries, fire officials said.

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.'"