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How Do You Brace for Death?


The first 911 call came at 3:29 p.m. A rattled rasp, chafed by a strong Bronx accent, overwhelmed the operator: "I'm witnessing an airplane that is going down . . . it's on fire . . . Oh my God . . . I heard a big boom and he came straight over us. . . . Oh my God."

The caller had seen an Airbus, bound from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, at 3,000 feet over the Bronx Zoo just after it struck a flock of large Canada geese. The jet had been aloft less than 100 seconds. With 155 passengers and crew, it had less than 3 1/2 minutes left.

The crash-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River last Jan. 15 became the feel-good story of the year - a happy moment in a time of economic despair. The world watched, mesmerized, as the passengers stepped out onto the wings and climbed aboard ferries that rescued all of them. The pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, was hailed as a hero for delicately gliding the 75-ton jet to a safe landing in the river.

But the flight was more traumatic, and the rescue more precarious, than those early images suggest. Interviews with 118 passengers reveal that many expected to die as they rode the crashing airliner down. Then, having survived the crash, many faced death again in icy water.

Passengers in the rear of the jet's cabin expected to drown as water rose above their chests. At least 17 ended up in the river, and another dozen became hypothermic waiting on the jet's wings. In many cases, the outcome would not have been as happy if the rescue been delayed by even a few minutes.

After hitting the birds, the jet shuddered and emitted quick, spooky noises - the thumps of geese bouncing along the fuselage, simultaneous explosions and tortured sounds inside the engines that were winding down to a dead stop.

From the passengers inside the only loud sound was a startled scream from Eileen Shleffar, the 56-year-old manager of a buying team from a Charlotte department store. So stunned were the others that they could manage only gasps, murmurs and an occasional startled epithet.

The eeriness set in quickly for Ricardo Valeriano, a Charlotte financier. He says a light smoke and putrid smell invaded the cabin - "a mix of jet fuel, burning hair and burning flesh - a concoction you never want to smell, especially in an airplane."

Despite the near certainty of what lay ahead, the cabin turned almost as silent as the dead engines. Psychiatrists call this "psychic numbing" - the mind shuts down against threats it can't handle.

Jay McDonald, a Charlotte software salesman seated just behind the burning engine spotted by the 911 caller, had been looking past it down at Yankee Stadium when the jet hit the geese. He didn't look out the window again and has no recollection of the fire.

Some passengers say they had out-of-body experiences, others talked to God. The flight became an eternity for some, mere seconds for others. Some later thought they'd been airborne for a half-hour.

Lives flashed before eyes, Hollywood-style. Dave Sanderson, a Charlotte computer expert, replayed Little League baseball games, saw his first girlfriend, revisited his college days.

Tripp Harris, a banking consultant, went the other direction. He saw scenes from a future lost, playing catch with his 2-year-old son, helping him in school. "How badly I wanted to see him grow up."

Meanwhile, real time was unyielding. Capt. Sullenberger took the jet into a long, banking dive to regain speed and stability. Within a minute of hitting the birds, he lost two-thirds of his altitude and approached a landmark - the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson. The plane skimmed only 600 feet over its arches, or 1,235 feet above the river.

Then Sullenberger spoke on the jet's PA for the first time since takeoff: "This is your captain. Brace for impact."

Flight 1549 had 90 seconds to go.

"When you hear those words on an airplane," said Douglas Schrift, a Charlotte construction executive, "You don't think you heard them right. Then the flight attendants started chanting. A creepy chant. Like a horror movie. 'Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!' "

Then the passengers' emotions swung in wildly different directions.

"Brace for impact?" Bill Zuhowski asked himself. "How do you brace for death?"

Laura Zych heard a baby crying. Instead of an irritation, the cries soothed her as "a sign we were alive."

Jim Whitaker saw death but was at peace because of his Roman Catholicism and a worldly belief that worse things can happen. One of his children had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That was a worse thing.

Some thought of their life insurance, others of unmade beds and cluttered garages left behind, forgotten goodbye kisses.

Lori Lightner burst out: "Oh, crap, we're crashing." Then she quickly prayed, "Forgive me for everything I've done wrong. I don't have time to go through it all because I'm going to die."

As the haunting "Brace, brace," chant continued to unnerve everyone, Josh Peltz started a countdown:

"Fifty feet, 45 feet, 40 feet. . ."

At the front of the coach cabin Casey Jones, a Bank of America executive, heard the robotic computer voice of the cockpit warning system seep under the door: "Caution! Terrain! Too low! Pull up! Pull up!"

Then the jet's tail struck the Hudson. Hard.

Sullenberger brought the jet in at a near perfect attitude - wings level, nose up about 10 degrees, speed about 150 mph. Still, the Airbus took a terrific hit. In first-class, Barry Leonard said the aircraft "groaned" as the fuselage settled the final 10 degrees into the river.

The jet had landed on the New Jersey side of the river. It hydroplaned five or six city blocks, lost its left engine into the Hudson and, as if it had its own public-relations director, took a sweeping turn and almost a slight bow toward the town that makes legends, New York.

Inside the cabin, the passengers remained silent for five or 10 seconds after the jet came to a stop. In first-class Denise Lockie, an office-supply executive, remained braced in her seat until her seatmate, Mark Hood, an ex-Marine, nudged her.

"Am I in heaven?" she asked him.

"No, and I'm no angel," Hood, a deeply religious man, replied as he urged her to get moving.

Nearby Barry Leonard started toward the door, then paused and looked back to make sure his body wasn't still in his seat.

'Like watching lemmings'

At mid-plane, the four wing exits quickly popped open.

On the left side, Michelle DePonte, who had traveled from Charlotte to New York for her final wedding dress fitting, was the first to step out into brilliant sunshine. Surging with adrenalin and overjoyed to be alive, DePonte did not feel the frosty bite of 22-degree air.

Within seconds, DePonte and six others who filed out behind her had jumped into the Hudson and were swimming away from the jet. None wore life preservers. Having survived the impact, they now faced drowning in 35-degree water.

"It was like watching lemmings," said Clay Presley, a Charlotte business executive, who saw his row mate, Steve O'Brien, launch himself as if he were jumping into a swimming pool.

Presley started to jump, another lemming off the ledge, but couldn't make himself. He had no seat cushion, no life vest, and the group in the water sounded "like they were freezing to death."

The swimmers feared an explosion more than cold water. "All I could think was: We just took off, this plane is full of fuel, fuel burns on top of water," said Shae Childers.

For Barry Leonard, who jumped in from first-class, the plunge set off a deadly physical reaction known as cold shock response. He began to hyperventilate, gulping air in small, uncontrollable breaths.

Had he been facedown, one or two involuntary breaths could have flooded his lungs, drowning him. The 55-year-old business executive also faced sudden cardiac arrest from the extreme temperature change. His blood pressure, measured on shore 45 minutes later, was 190/110, well into stroke territory. He has no memory of being pulled aboard the life raft at the first-class cabin door.

Cold shock hit the others hard. When Mark Hood, the ex-Marine, pulled Pam Seagle into the raft, her strength had vanished.

"I've seen a lot of dead people in my life, people dead just 10 seconds, people dead longer," he said. "Pam looked like she was almost dead because her lips were so blue and her skin was so pale."

O'Brien managed to swing a leg and arm into the raft, but Hood and Denise Lockie had to haul him in.

"He had a look of panic and terror on his face," Lockie said. As she took him in her arms, he asked: "Is this a dream? Is this really happening?"

"It's really happening," she said.

'Go the other way!'

Inside the cabin, the aisle jammed with people. Some started over the tops of seats "like a cat on furniture," said Diane Higgins, who panicked about evacuating her 85-year-old mother, Lucille Palmer, who could barely walk.

"Just leave me," her mother said. "Ma!" Higgins recoiled, horrified at the thought.

The rear cabin, which had taken the brunt of the impact, looked like a train wreck. Oxygen masks dangled; overhead bin doors hung askew. Bags had fallen out and ceiling panels dropped to the floor.

It was worse than a mess. The collision had stripped full panels off the jet's undercarriage, allowing water to seep in around passengers' feet. Worse, it had ripped the tail cone apart and torn a gaping hole in the rear pressure bulkhead, the wall that keeps the cabin pressurized but, broken open, became a culvert for water to gush into the jet.

New Yorkers watched passengers escaping to what seemed like safety on the wings. What they couldn't see was the drama in the back of the jet, where passengers such as Vallie Collins had gone from wet feet to bone-chilling water "above my chest. . . . It was like needles."

She had been heading for the rear exits, now hopelessly underwater. Collins turned and tried to go to mid-plane, only to run into a mass of passengers still heading her way. "Go the other way!" she yelled.

Near her, in the last row, Brian Moss seemed stalled. The rising water forced him up onto the seatback ahead of him, where only inches of head room remained. "I looked down at the water and knew that was how I was going to die," Moss recalled later. Briefly, he thought of putting his face into the water to see how it would feel. He didn't.

Jim Hanks, a Baltimore lawyer, felt the water surge to the top of his tie. Ahead of him he could see nothing but the roadblock of humanity, pushing both directions.

"This is it," he thought. His wife would become a young widow. His 4-year-old daughter wouldn't remember him. "Those were the saddest thoughts I have ever had. It was a certainty and it wouldn't take very long."

All thought the full length of the jet was sinking at an even rate until the mass turned, edging slowly toward the front. They got in line, Moss last. Astonished, they found the water got shallower as they moved ahead - "like walking out of a beach," Hanks said. When Moss reached the wing exits, he saw many outside didn't have life preservers. He waded back into the rear to retrieve more. Sullenberger finally had to tell him to leave.

Just 'trying to stay on'

The image of the passengers lined up on the wings became the enduring visual. But it was a precarious perch, not meant for Italian leather-soled loafers and three-inch high heels.

Water mixed with jet fuel, swirled on the surface, then froze. At least eight people slid off into the river. A dozen more became hypothermic when the water rose to their waist as the jet sank.

"You were blindly feeling with your feet, trying to stay on," said Chris Cobb. "You didn't know where the tip was."

Martin and Tess Sosa emerged at the right wing exit with their 4-year-old daughter, Sofia, and nine-month-old son, Damian, just after a group of men untangled the inflated wing slide and begun loading it with survivors. Anxiety rose in the group that Tess would slip on the wing with the baby before she could get to the slide.

Several yelled for Tess to "throw the baby" to them, but the thought shocked her. "I wasn't going to throw him and risk him falling into the frigid waters. . . . I made it through all of this and you think I'm going to throw my baby now? No. I'm fine holding him."

Vallie Collins intervened. "A man on the slide said, 'Get those kids.' I step onto the back corner of the slide - I'm kind of half in, half out. I have one foot on the back and one foot on the wing. I look at Tess and say, 'Give me your baby.' "

Collins handed Damian over. "Then I took the little girl and just sat down cross-legged with her in my lap."

A close call

By then, the New York Waterway ferries were in sight. On the left wing, Shae Childers' wingmates struggled to get her aboard the ferry first. After her jump into the Hudson, Childers, 38, had been pulled from the water but had become too weak to save herself.

Her core temperature had dropped to 92 degrees, the lowest of the 17 survivors later treated for hypothermia. She would spend three days in a New York hospital. But first she had to climb onto one of those boxy ferries. It seemed beyond her.

She grabbed onto the ladder of the ferry Moira Smith, but it had pinned a man's foot to the wing. As the boat throttled back to release him, Childers fell into the river.

She now was at exceptionally high risk. Hauled back onto the wing, she could not stand. The ferry moved in again to the wing, but a second attempt to get her aboard failed. Childers got a grip on a third try, but could not climb. Joe Hart scrambled up to the deck to pull her, as others pushed from below.

"The boat drifts away from the plane," he said. "Now it's just me and Shae, and I'm losing her. We've got eye contact just like in the movies. 'Hold on.' And with that, she slips through my hands."

About that time, the New York Police Department helicopter carrying divers Michael Delaney and Robert Rodriguez appeared overhead. . As the chopper circled, Delaney caught a glimpse of Childers' red sweater.

"Put me there," he told the pilot.

Below, Childers grew frantic, her limbs unable to move. "I've lived through this plane crash, but now I'm going to fall under this boat and be killed by this ferry," she thought. " . . . I'm just not going to make it. I can't hold on any longer."

At that moment, Delaney, now in choppy waters, tapped her on the shoulder.

"My name is Michael," he said. "We're going to get you out of the water." And he did.

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