Investigation begins in plane's splash landing
Posted January 16, 2009 5:54 a.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2009 3:40 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Investigators brought in a giant crane and a barge Friday to help pull a US Airways jetliner from the Hudson River, and survivors among the 155 people aboard recounted tales of horror and hailed the pilot as a hero who delivered them from certain death.
Pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III was in good spirits and showing no outward signs of stress from the ordeal, a pilots union official said.
While on a rescue raft with pilot Sullenberger in the frigid cold, passenger Billy Campbell said he went to him.
"I leaned over and grabbed his arm, and I said I just want to thank you on behalf of all of us," Campbell told NBC's "Today" show. "He just said, 'You're welcome.'"'
Barry Leonard, chief executive of Goldsboro-based Ex-cell Home Fashions, said one of the pilots gave him the shirt off his back to stay warm after Leonard had jumped into the icy river to escape the plane.
"I started swimming, thinking maybe I should swim to shore, but after about a minute, I realized there was no way I could survive doing that as cold as the water was. So I swam back, and the raft was out by then, so I jumped into the raft," said Leonard, who siffered a broken sternum.
"I was obviously extremely cold, and one of the pilots gave me his shirt and took it off his back and put it on mine to keep me warm. (He) actually just kind of hugged me to help me stay warm," he said.
Carl Bazarian, of Amelia Plantation, S.C., said the flight crew prepared the passengers for the emergency landing.
"We said, 'Oh my God, this (pilot) is following the river, and all of a sudden, we were at 1,000 feet, 500 feet, 250 feet," Bazarian said. "We're following the river, and he said, 'Brace for impact.'
"Nobody panicked. It was women and children first," he said.
Campbell was sitting in the back of the plane when it landed on the water.
"The water was rushing in through the window seams and we couldn't get the back exit open," he said. "So, that scared us a little bit, and we tried and the flight attendant did a wonderful job trying, but then finally turned and said immediately "'Go to the wing (exit).'"
The parents of a 3-year-old girl and a 9-month-old boy recounted Friday how they and a fellow passenger prepared themselves for the crash landing and escaped from the fast-submerging plane.
"I held Sophia and we did the best we could to brace ourselves up," Martin Sosa, the father, told NBC's "Today."
"And the gentleman beside me said, "Would you like me to brace your son?" said his wife, Tess Sosa. "And I said okay, because he mentioned that he had been on scary flights before."
"And he did, he braced my son. There was an impact. My son was crying. That was such a good sign to me."
The flight was bound for Charlotte, and several passengers arrived in the Queen City early Friday after catching another flight.
"It was amazing how much everyone helped everyone out," said Mark Hood, of Charlotte. "We pulled some people back into the escape slides who had gotten into the water."
National Transportation Safety Board investigators will now focus on recovering the black box from the plane and interviewing the crew about the accident – apparently caused by birds that slammed into the plane's two engines.
The Airbus A320, built in 1999, was tethered to a pier on the tip of Lower Manhattan on Friday morning, about 4 miles from where it touched down. Only a gray wing tip could be seen jutting out of the water near a Lower Manhattan sea wall.
About a block away, it was business as usual as residents jogged or headed to work.
"We want to get the plane recovered as soon as possible but we want to do it a safe way," NTSB spokeswoman Kitty Higgins said.
Higgins said one challenge will be hauling the plane out of the water without causing it to break apart.
Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles and crew have become instant heroes for guiding the plane to safety and safely evacuating the passengers. Sullenberger's wife told CNN she hadn't been watching the news and was stunned to hear about the ordeal from her husband after it was all over.
"I've heard Sully say to people, 'It's rare for an airline pilot to have an incident in their career,'" Lorrie Sullenberger said. "When he called me he said, 'There's been an accident.' At first I thought it was something minor, but then he told me the circumstances, and my body started shaking and I rushed to get our daughters out of school."
James Ray, a spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, said he spoke with Sullenberger on Friday and described him as being "in good shape physically, mentally and in good spirits."
"He was just very calm and cool, very relaxed, just very professional," Ray said.
Ray said the flight crew was resting and likely would meet with investigators later Friday or Saturday. He said the crew has been asked not talk to the press about the accident until after the NTSB investigation is complete.
Sullenberger, 57, of Danville, Calif., is a former Air Force fighter pilot who has flown for US Airways for 29 years. He also runs a safety consulting firm.
US Airways chief executive Doug Parker said in a statement it was premature to speculate about the cause. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said there was no immediate indication the incident was "anything other than an accident."
At a City Hall ceremony to honor those who came to the aid of the stranded passengers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sullenberger's actions "inspired people around the city, and millions more around the world."
Bloomberg planned to present the pilot with the key to the city.
It was a chain of improbability. Birds tangle with airplanes regularly but rarely bring down commercial aircraft. Jet engines sometimes fail – but both at once? Pilots train for a range of emergencies, but few, if any, have ever successfully ditched a jet in one of the nation's busiest waterways without any life-threatening injuries.
"We had a miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we have had a miracle on the Hudson," Gov. David Paterson said.
If the accident was hard to imagine, so was the result: Besides one victim with two broken legs, there were no other reports of serious injuries to the 155 people aboard.
"You're happy to be alive, really," 23-year-old passenger Bill Zuhoski said.
US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport at 3:26 p.m. Less than a minute later, the pilot reported a "double bird strike" and said he needed to return to LaGuardia, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Passengers quickly realized something was terrifyingly wrong.
"I heard an explosion, and I saw flames coming from the left wing, and I thought, 'This isn't good,'" said Dave Sanderson, 47, who was heading home to Charlotte from a business trip. "Then it was just controlled chaos. People started running up the aisle. People were getting shoved out of the way."
Some passengers prayed. Vallie Collins, 37, tapped out a text message to her husband, Steve: "My plane is crashing." For a desperate half-hour, he was unable to get in touch with her to learn that she had survived.
Onshore, from streets and office windows, witnesses watched the plane steadily descend off roughly 48th Street in midtown Manhattan.
"I just thought, 'Why is it so low?' And, splash, it hit the water," said Barbara Sambriski, a researcher at The Associated Press, who watched the water landing from the news organization's high-rise office.
The 150 passengers and five crew members were forced to escape as the plane quickly became submerged up to its windows in 36-degree water. Dozens stood on the aircraft's wings on a 20-degree day, one of the coldest of the winter, as commuter ferries and Coast Guard vessels converged to rescue them.
One ferry, the Thomas Jefferson of the company NY Waterway, arrived within minutes. Riders grabbed life vests and rope and tossed them to plane passengers in the water.
"They were cheering when we pulled up," Capt. Vincent Lombardi. "People were panicking. They said, 'Hurry up! Hurry up!'"
Two police scuba divers said they pulled a woman from a lifeboat "frightened out of her mind" and lethargic from hypothermia. Helen Rodriguez, a paramedic who was among the first to arrive at the scene, said she saw one woman with two broken legs.
Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, many for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries, fire officials said. Some of the shivering survivors were swaddled in blankets, their feet and legs soaked.
From 1990 to 2007, there were nearly 80,000 reported incidents of birds striking nonmilitary aircraft, about one strike for every 10,000 flights, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
The Hudson accident took place almost exactly 27 years after an Air Florida plane bound for Tampa crashed into the Potomac River just after takeoff from Washington National Airport, killing 78 people. Five people on that flight survived.
On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at Denver International Airport, injuring 38 people. That was the first major crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner took off from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short.