Brace for impact, the pilot, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, said last January 15. The passengers of Flight 1549 knew what that meant: prepare for their final moment here on earth.
Mark Hood, in seat 2A, described it as the most peaceful silence he had ever experienced. He began his last prayer: “God, let my wife Lisa find happiness without me. Let my daughter Maggie follow her dream of attending NYU without being haunted by this New York memory.”
Beth McHugh looked down at the Hudson River and flashed to her familiar nightmare: being in a car that careened off a bridge into a river and drowning. A nightmare so real and so raw that she would only buy new cars with hand-crank windows, so she’d have a chance to get out. “Daddy, I’ll be seeing you in heaven soon,” she prayed. “And please don’t let me stay in the water too long.”
Barry Leonard remembered his plea to God the day before. As he awaited the results of his wife’s tests for possible breast cancer, he said,“ God, if you’re going to take someone, take me.” Her tests came back negative. “I guess I’m going to get what I asked for,” he said to himself.
Vicki Barnhardt, wife and mother of two young children, reached for her cell phone and got through to her husband’s voice mail. “I love you, I love the kids,” she blurted out. “I love you, I love you.”
They didn’t think they were going to die, they knew it.
They were plunging down below the New York City skyscrapers, hurtling toward the Hudson. Big commercial jets weren’t made to land on water – when it happens, they crack in half. And on this cold winter’s day, that water would be frigid. It all looked bleak, and they had no control. So they surrendered. They let go – and let God, or some force greater than themselves.
And as we all know that plane didn’t crash. It skidded to a safe landing, guided by a savvy pilot sent by central casting, or somewhere. Ferry boats closed in as if on cue, many in close proximity because this just happened to time for shift change. The snow and the winds from that morning had faded, making rescue conditions ideal.
It was the Miracle on the Hudson. Do you remember the pictures of those passengers standing on those water-covered wings? Did it fill you, as it did me, with awe and wonder? Was this some kind of sign? At our country’s time of economic turmoil, struggle, pain, and uncertainty, could this have been a signal that someone or something was looking out for us? That there was reason to hope? That something good really can come from something that looks bad – very, very bad?
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.