Don Jones: ‘A Miracle on the Hudson’
Before you hear the story of Flight 1549, you should know that the man we are to discuss is a 25-year member of Rotary. As you probably know, the Rotary Club is the world’s first service organization founded in 1905 by Paul P. Harris, an attorney. The first club was organized in Chicago, and today there are over 33,000 clubs world-wide with over 1.2 million members. Its mission is “Service above Self,” and to this end members contribute and raise money toward one major mission “to fight to end Polio world-wide.”
Here, in Jacksonville, there are approximately 14 Rotary Clubs. The first club, Rotary Club of Jacksonville, was organized in 1912 as the 41st Rotary Club in the world and the first in the state of Florida. Rotary Clubs sponsor two other types of clubs: Interact (for High School age students) and Rotaract (for up and comers approximately 21 to 30).
Rotary Clubs meet every week of the year (minus a couple) which brings the total annual meetings to approximately 50 meetings. A normal meeting includes lunch, ten minutes of national anthem, pledge of allegiance, prayer and introduction of visitors and guests. A speaker informs and entertains for approximately 30 minutes. Usually an expert in his or her field, topics the speaker covers can range from apples to zebras and anything in between.
This brings us to the Tuesday June 9, 2009, speaker. It is someone I have known and admired for 20 years. In his 42 year career of medical association management, he has served as both Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Medical Association. With over 17,000 members, he oversaw all aspects of its operation. In 1997, he was asked to assume the title of CEO of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologist (AACE), a position which he still holds. With 6,000 members in the United States and 84 other countries, he has a lot of responsibility. In fact, that was what he was doing in New York City the fateful day of
January 15, 2009, promoting the AACE.
But, that is not the story. This man, Don Jones, is now not known for being this big shot medical association executive. He is forever Don Jones, airline crash survivor of Flight 1549, “The Miracle on the Hudson.” And on Tuesday, June 9, 2009, he entertained the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville with his story.
For those of you who do not know Don Jones, I’ll describe him for you. He is approximately 5’8”, grey black hair, white shirt, tie, dark blue suit and Johnson and Murphy shoes. It would be hard to imagine that as a child he did not wear a suit. He is serious and intellectual, but fun-loving, detailed in dealings and exacting in nature. He is a person who would be the last one to embellish a story and could never use the words “I” or “me.” Don is truly humble, a real gentleman and definitely the last person to let you down.
When he stood at the podium, the crowd silenced as though someone touched by God was about to speak. Members leaned forward and hung on every word. The first thing Don said was, “I’m going to tell you about a story with a real happy . . . tremendously happy outcome. A story with really no beginning and no end. Something that took place in less than five minutes. In my experience, it was a Miracle. In fact, according to Webster’s Dictionary, it defines a miracle as an event that has divine intervention by the hand of God. Using that definition, it was a true miracle.”
Of the entire experience, he confessed, “It makes you feel insignificant and demonstrates clearly just how truly blessed you are.” Don was in New York promoting Thyroid Awareness Month (which he does every year) for the AACE. The morning he was to fly home to Jacksonville, the weather was horrible. “It was snowing, dreary and overcast.” Don was sure that he would be spending another night in the “Big Apple” to fly out the next morning. “But suddenly,” he said, “the weather broke and though it was cold outside, the sky was clear, the winds minimal and the Hudson River previously choppy, now looked as smooth as a lake.”
Don flies repeatedly for his work and accumulates thousands of upgrade points. This came in handy this particular day when he upgraded to First Class and was assigned to seat 3C. “I will never fly near the window. I prefer the aisle and definitely would not be caught dead in the back of the jet. You could say I’m claustrophobic,” Don said adjusting the microphone. At 3:26 p.m., the plane finally hurled down the runway, directionally heading toward the Bronx area of New York. “I’ve flown so much that I have blocked the safety feature the past 50 or so flights,” he said, then added, “but not anymore.”
Ninety seconds into the flight, he was reading the newspaper when every passenger heard a loud “POP.” Some people thought it sounded like an explosion where others thought they heard a boom, but from Don’s vantage point, he heard a loud grinding sound which he said, “Got your attention.” The passenger to his right faced him and said, “This doesn’t look very good.” Don nodded an “I agree” back to him. The jet had reached 3,000 ft., had lost thrust and was now classified as a glider. Luckily (actually part of the miracle) was that the Airbus which they were flying in, had an improved wing design that greatly improved its glide capability.
“What we didn’t know was the fact that the geese hit both engines (left and right side of the plane) simultaneously killing both engines. But even with the sudden jolt, there was no sudden drop or reduction in airspeed.” Don pointed out another miracle. “We were told that if the jet were any higher we’d have hit faster and harder and if the jet were any lower it might have dropped from the air like a brick.”
He explained how the pilot (Sully) and his first officer (Skiles) took the event in stride and began discussing alternate landing sites with the air traffic controller. More miracles: “Sully was an expert glider pilot and better yet, when asked what he wanted to concentrate on during his annual retraining he selected water landings.” Don was fairly familiar with the city and was staring out the window for the site that Sully might land the plane. In the mean time, the air traffic controller was whipping out alternatives.
Like a programmed computer, pilot Sully kept eliminating the possibilities. Again, he was not alarming the passengers, and the jet was so controlled they felt safe and secure. Finally, Don looked out and noticed the George Washington Bridge less than 1000 ft. below and the shore lined up on either side of the plane. The jet was headed directly toward the Statue of Liberty. He knew that the pilot was out of options. At that exact moment, the pilot had reached the same conclusion and in a calm voice told the air traffic controller, “Can’t get to your site, we’re going to be in the Hudson.” The air traffic controllers’ last word was, “What?”
Don said that the one question that everyone asks him is, “What were you thinking when you knew you were going to crash into the river?’ His reply was simple. “Nothing really, not for one second did I ever doubt that I would not survive.” He said that some people were calling family, others were praying and some were asking forgiveness. “I didn’t have time to list all the things I needed forgiveness for,” Don joked. Again, he said that the lack of information or discussions from the captain probably reduced the level of anxiety for everyone. Sully’s only remarks to the cabin (flight attendants) were: “This is your captain, brace for impact.”
Calmly but loudly, the flight attendants yelled, “everyone lean over, cover your face and grab your ankles!” Don joked again, “Can you imagine grabbing your ankles on the new jets? Are you kidding me?” Everyone laughed, but quickly regained composure to hear the rest of the story.
Don confessed: “I did not follow directions.” “I continued to watch everything. I did say a small prayer of ‘Lord, help me to survive this.‘” He did brace for impact with his hands on the next seat in front of him. When the jet hit the water, the pilot used a procedure where the rear of the plane is slammed hard to slow the forward speed and then the plane slid forward skimming on the water. “This is how the only person was injured,” Don said. “The rear of the plane flight attendant received a serious cut on her leg when the impact pressure on the bottom rear of the plane forced metal shards up through the bottom of the floor below her.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Don said. “I’ve been in much rougher landings. This was a piece of cake.” The forward impact also ripped the left engine from the jet and when the wing touched the water, the plane was suddenly turned around facing the opposite direction. Sitting in First Class, Don was one of the first out of the jet. The stewardess barked the orders, “Grab you seat cushion and use it as a life vest, take off your shoes and slide down the slide in an orderly manner.”
Don said that he did not heed those commands (not on purpose but because his mind was thinking of other things) but slid down into the frigid waters below shoes and all. He had no vest or anything that would float. He said that he always heard that you have to get as far away as possible from a crashed jet to avoid any possible explosion.
He swam for the wing to climb on top of it. It was so frozen and icy that he could not pull himself up. In an attempt to save himself, he turned and tried to swim back to the plane. It was too late, hypothermia was setting in and his body was not cooperating. He made another attempt to climb on the wing, but was not successful. Suddenly, a young woman appeared on the end of the wing and shouted, “Take my hand!” She leaned forward and gave Don her hand to hold so he would not sink. Finally, he was able to grab into a part of the flap area that had opened on impact. Another woman swam to where he was (he learned later her name was Shea), and he helped her get a similar grip.
In all the commotion, the pilot had kept his wits and landed the plane as close as possible between the New Jersey and New York ferries. This allowed the sailors to get their ships to the jet as quickly as possible. Another miracle! After 12 to 13 minutes in 36 degrees water and with 20 degrees air temperature, the rescuers finally arrived. “They told me to climb a 10 ft. rope ladder but with frozen hands, it seemed to me that it was 10 stories,” Don said. “This is where my Johnson and Murphy shoes came in handy. They were so insulated that they actually kept my feet from freezing. I was able to use my feet to get to the top of the rope.” Don paused to interject that Johnson and Murphy had heard his miraculous story and wanted him to be his poster boy.
“Just as I was close to the top of the rope ladder, a man aboard the ship grabbed me by the waist and gave me a yank. I slid across the top of the ship like a large wet flounder.” Everyone laughed again. Don paid homage to the pilot. “Everything that he did, he did right. The takeoff, staying calm, gliding the plane, selecting the landing site and landing without killing anyone. We could not have had a better prepared pilot. Sully is a graduate of the Air force Academy, a well-trained glider pilot, he had over 20,000 flying hours and he stayed calm and in control in the worst of circumstances.”
“My first thought was to call my wife before she heard on any news channel,” he said. Though he had his cell phone, it was waterlogged. A deck hand handed him his phone. “I called my wife and at that exact moment she called my secretary to see if I would be arriving on time. What timing,” he exclaimed. Don’s son, a Raleigh, NC, news anchor for NBC, was on the air when he heard of the crash. He was on the other phone line attempting to assure himself that I wasn’t on the plane.” Finally, everyone knew that Don was safe.
Another Good Samaritan took his shirt off and replaced Don’s shirt with his warm one. A Red Cross worker quickly threw warm blankets over the survivors. “You can’t say enough about how warm-hearted New Yorkers are,” Don said. “The bellman at the Marriott LaGuardia Hotel recognized the Red Cross blanket, ran up and gave me a big hug. Would you believe he asked me my size, ran out and bought me clothes and since we had the same size shoes, he drove home and got me a warm pair from his house and delivered them to me?”
Don concluded his speech with the statement that “he had to fly out on the next morning on another U.S. Air jet scheduled for the exact same time as his original flight 1549, the previous day. It was a little unnerving.”
Though he has flown a dozen or more times since this incident, he said that “now he hates takeoffs and landings but, he listens to safety instruction attentively.”
Don, from all of us to you: Don, you are something special and we’re glad you are alive.
One final note. Don sent me a copy of the thank you notes that he sent out to everyone who helped him: the gentleman who provided the shirt (William Espinoza); the bellman who got the clothes (Eddie Megran); Mr. Bill Marriott, J.D., to tell him about his stellar employee (Eddie Megran); Johnson and Murphy for the lifesaving insulated shoes; and, finally a big thank you note to Pilot Sully. He mentioned to me after the meeting that people just come up to him in stores and want to touch him or hug him. I hugged him a week after the crash.
Oh, and Johnson and Murphy has sent him two new pairs of shoes. They have his name stenciled with gold leaf inside. He still wears the shoes he had on the plane, and I asked to take a picture of them.
Joseph Miller is a life-long resident of Jacksonville, Florida, and an active member of the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville. As a historian, he recently completed his first book on the Founder of Rotary, Paul P. Harris, titled “That Paul Harris.”
Joseph can be reached at JaxHistory@gmail.com.