The Plane Crash that Gave Us Hope

One year after the miracle landing of Flight 1549, we investigate the ripple effect of how it changed people's lives for the better.

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There was more going on inside this miracle than those angelic images. In researching my book Brace for Impact, I came to appreciate just how much the 150 passengers had to do with assuring their own survival. After Sully’s perfect landing, I learned of countless, amazing acts of courage, grace, selflessness, awareness, compassion.

Something was guiding them, some force that brings out the best in the human condition. Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German mystic, had a phrase for the state they seemed to enter: “Let yourself go, and let God be God in you.” The stories the passengers of flight 1549 were among some of the most heroic tales I’d every heard.

  • Mark Hood, former Marine lieutenant, assumed a command post at the rear of one of the life rafts and spotted two passengers trying to swim to shore. “Swim over here!” he yelled. Minutes later he hoisted them onto the raft, noting how the woman’s lips were blue with hypothermia. Another minute in that 36-degree water and she’d have been gone.
  • Eighty-five year old Lucille Palmer turned to her 40-something daughter Diane and said, “You go. I’ll stay. I’ve lived my life.” To which her daughter replied, “No, Ma!” as a flight attendant swooped in and escorted her mother out.
  • In the vulnerable rear of the aircraft, where the water was above waist level, Brad Wentzell followed the surge through the aisles and was this close to the exit, this close to the light outside the darkened plane, this close to life, when he heard the cries. The mother and her baby were trying to climb over the seats. They were stuck, and terrified “I can’t leave them behind,” Brad said. He turned back against the tide of humanity, scooped them up in a two-fisted bear hug, woman on one side, baby on the other side. And this former wrestler who can bench press close to 400 pounds boomed “Coming through!” and he brought them through – to life.
  • Dave Sanderson kept watch until everyone had safely gotten out the back, and with the wings and rafts now full, he was left to straddle the sinking plane and a ramp. He was in the water so long his body temperature was so low and his blood pressure so high he had crossed into the danger zone. Because he had to help.
  • Meanwhile, at the front of the plane, Barry Leonard, who had to look at his seat after the landing to make sure his dead body was not there, heard someone give the command to “Jump!” and plunged into the cold river with no life preserver or seat cushion. He fractured his sternum on impact and thought: “I’ll swim to the Jersey shore.” Then: “No, it’s too far, I should go back near the plane.” And then...he doesn’t remember. Hands, he feels hands pulling him onto a raft.
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Kevin Quirk
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