Pilot ditches plane into frigid river; 155 survive
NEW YORK (AP) -- A cool-headed pilot maneuvered his crippled jetliner over New York City and ditched it in the frigid Hudson River on Thursday, and all 155 on board were pulled to safety as the plane slowly sank. It was, the governor said, "a miracle on the Hudson."
One victim suffered two broken legs, a paramedic said, but there were no other reports of serious injuries.
US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 bound for Charlotte, N.C., struck a flock of birds just after takeoff minutes earlier at LaGuardia Airport, apparently disabling the engines.
The pilot, identified as Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III of Danville, Calif., "was phenomenal," passenger Joe Hart said. "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 said.
In a city still wounded from the aerial attack on the World Trade Center, authorities were quick to assure the public that terrorism wasn't involved.
The plane was submerged up to its windows in the river by the time rescuers arrived, including Coast Guard vessels and commuter ferries that happened to be nearby. Some passengers waded in water up to their knees, standing on the wing of the plane and waiting for help.
Helen Rodriguez, a paramedic who was among the first to arrive at the scene, said she saw one woman with two broken legs. Fire officials said others were evaluated for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries. An infant was on board and appeared to be fine, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
"We had a miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we have had a miracle on the Hudson," Gov. David Paterson said.
The crash took place on a 20-degree day, one of the coldest of the season in New York. The Coast Guard said the water temperature was 36 degrees.
Dave Sanderson, who was flying home to Charlotte after a business trip, said the sound of an explosion was followed by passengers running up the aisle and people being shoved out of the way.
As the plane descended, passenger Vallie Collins tapped out a text message to her husband, Steve: "My plane is crashing." He was desperately trying to figure out whether she had been on the downed plane when the message arrived 30 minutes later.
Another passenger, Jeff Kolodjay, said people put their heads in their laps and prayed. He said the captain instructed them to "brace for impact because we're going down."
"It was intense. It was intense. You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing," Kolodjay said.
Witnesses said the pilot appeared to guide the plane down. Barbara Sambriski, a researcher at The Associated Press, watched the water landing from the news organization's high-rise office.
"I just thought, 'Why is it so low?' And, splash, it hit the water," she said.
As water slowly filled the cabin, Sanderson said he and another passenger helped people out onto the wing. One woman had a 3-year-old child, he said, and safely tossed the toddler onto a raft before climbing on herself.
One commuter ferry, the Thomas Jefferson of the company NY Waterway, arrived within minutes of the crash, and some of its own riders grabbed life vests and lines of rope and tossed them to plane passengers in the water.
"They were cheering when we pulled up," ferry captain Vincent Lombardi. "We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying. ... People were panicking. They said, 'Hurry up, hurry up."'
Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, fire officials said. Coast Guard boats rescued 35 people who were immersed in the frigid water and ferried them to shore. Some of the rescued were shivering and wrapped in white blankets, their feet and legs soaked.
Two police scuba divers said they pulled another woman from a lifeboat "frightened out of her mind" and lethargic from hypothermia. Another woman fell off a rescue raft, and the divers said they swam over and put her on a Coast Guard boat.
The plane took off at 3:26 p.m. for a flight that would last only five minutes. It was less than a minute after takeoff when 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. He said the pilot apparently meant that birds had hit both of the plane's jet engines.
The controller told the pilot to divert to an airport in nearby Teterboro, N.J., but it was not clear why the pilot did not land there.
Church said there was no mayday call from the plane's transponder. The plane splashed into the water off roughly 48th Street in midtown Manhattan -- one of the busiest and most closely watched stretches of the river.
US Airways CEO Doug Parker said 150 passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots were on board the jetliner.
An official speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still ongoing identified the pilot as Sullenberger. A woman answered and hung up when the AP asked to speak with Sullenberger's family in Danville.
Sullenberger, 57, described himself in an online professional profile as a 29-year employee of US Airways. He started his own consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods Inc., two years ago.
Bank of America and Wells Fargo said they had employees on the plane. Charlotte is a major banking center.
Eric Doten, a Florida aviation safety consultant, said he could not recall another example of a modern jetliner water crash in which everyone survived. He said many things had to go right to avert catastrophe: The plane didn't cartwheel when it hit, the fuselage remained intact, and the fuel did not ignite -- in fact its buoyancy probably helped the plane stay afloat.
The plane sank slowly as it drifted downriver. Gradually, the fuselage went under until about half of the tail fin and rudder was above water. A Fire Department boat tugged the plane to the southern tip of Manhattan and docked it there.
The Federal Aviation Administration says there were about 65,000 bird strikes to civil aircraft in the United States from 1990 to 2005, or about one for every 10,000 flights.
"They literally just choke out the engine and it quits," said Joe Mazzone, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot. He said air traffic control towers routinely alert pilots if there are birds in the area.
The Hudson crash 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 the Denver 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.