After a stricken US Airways jet made an extraordinary emergency landing in the Hudson River on Thursday, a flotilla of commuter ferries, water taxis and other boats plucked all 155 passengers and crew -- many shivering as they stood on the plane's wings -- to safety in as little as five minutes.
It was the charmed culmination to what could have been a tragic flight after the Airbus A320 lost power over New York and glided into the icy river.
FOR THE RECORD:
Plane's emergency landing: In Friday's Section A, an article about the US Airways jet that went down in New York's Hudson River misquoted witness Patrick Wilder as saying he "saw the splash." Wilder said he did not see the splash. The article also mischaracterized a 1982 Air Florida crash into a bridge over Washington's Potomac River, calling it the United States' "best-known attempt at a river landing." The jetliner hit the bridge during takeoff. —
"I believe we've had a miracle on the Hudson," Gov. David Paterson said of the landing, executed by a veteran pilot who runs a safety consulting business on the side.
US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when federal officials said it might have flown through a large flock of Canada geese, sucking some into its engines. As it dipped down near the George Washington Bridge and skimmed south along the edge of Upper Manhattan, scores of people watched in horror from nearby high-rises.
"It completely just hit the water full-force, never bounced or anything like that, and came to a relatively quick stop," said Robin Roberts of "Good Morning America," who saw the plane's crash landing from her apartment window and described it for ABC News. "But it never -- it didn't skim along the water. There was very little trauma to the aircraft. . . . [I] still can't believe what I saw."
Once in the water, not far from the mooring of a retired aircraft carrier, the Intrepid, the plane remained intact, enabling passengers to walk out onto its wings, from which most were rescued. Some had to plunge briefly into the river -- where the water was in the high 30s -- before they could be pulled to safety. The air temperature hovered around 20.
"I've never seen anybody shake like that," said Cosmo Mezzina, a crew member on the Gov. Thomas H. Kean commuter ferry, recalling one young man he helped rescue. Mezzina said he took off his own coat and draped it over the shivering man.
One passenger was hospitalized with two broken legs, the Associated Press reported, but no other serious injuries were reported.
Although passengers aboard every U.S. passenger flight are given routine instructions for what to do in an emergency water landing, such events are rare -- and rarely successful. The best-known attempt at a river landing in the United States was in January 1982, when an Air Florida jetliner slammed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River in Washington. Five of the 79 people on board survived.
The pilot in Thursday's landing was Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, a former fighter pilot from Danville, Calif., with more than 40 years of flying experience. He founded Safety Reliability Methods Inc. to apply advances in safety systems, some of them based on "studies of high-risk, high-performance environments such as aircraft carrier flight deck operations," its website says.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the pilot had done "a wonderful job."
"It's not the way people normally arrive in New York City," added Bloomberg, "but as long as they all got out safely, everything else is secondary."
Bloomberg said he had spoken to Sullenberger, who also spoke to investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board but made no public statements. Bloomberg said Sullenberger described walking up and down the plane to make sure all passengers had been evacuated before he abandoned it.
Though the landing and subsequent rescue clearly relied on skill, they also had the advantage of luck. The landing occurred shortly before 3:30 p.m., just as ferries on both sides of the Hudson were "crewing up" for the afternoon rush hour. That allowed them to get to the plane almost instantly. At the same time, the river -- one of the world's busiest waterways, frequently plied by ferries, barges, tankers and cruise ships -- was apparently clear enough of shipping traffic to allow the plane to set down without hitting anything.
The Airbus A320 left LaGuardia at 3:26 p.m. After takeoff, it banked left and headed west toward the Hudson.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration has cautioned that the cause of the accident remains under investigation, one theory that quickly emerged was that the plane had encountered a large flock of geese. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters told him it appeared that Canada geese, which migrate through the New York area, might have knocked out both engines.
Rory Kay, an active airline pilot who is executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Assn. International, said that what pilots called "bird ingestion" could cause at least partial engine failure. If birds are sucked into just one engine, Kay said, a pilot usually can make it to the nearest airfield or airport.
"As long as you've got that remaining engine available to you, you hold quite a few aces up your sleeve," he said. "When both are taken away from you, you've got to make some rapid decisions."
Kay said it's "quite rare, but certainly not unheard of," for birds to shut down two engines of a plane.
"Both the aircraft and the engine are designed to take bird strikes," he said. "But if you just keep throwing a large flock of birds at that engine, there comes a breaking point. And just a single goose could desperately damage an engine if it gets in. If you get more than one goose, you're certainly stacking the odds against yourself."
It is not clear precisely when the plane lost engine power. However, from the airport, the US Airways plane flew across the Bronx, where Nick Reade, a freshman at Bronx High School of Science, was with a few friends when they heard a noise in the sky.
"We looked up because we heard a big boom, and we saw a plane," he said. "It was not exactly spiraling but twirling a little bit. We saw a flame on the left engine, and it was making slightly weird noises. It was really low, and we saw it take a turn southwest."
That was toward the river.
Patrick Wilder, a 35-year-old social worker, was bicycling north along the Hudson River near 125th Street when he saw the plane pass over the George Washington Bridge.
"I saw the plane on the Hudson and I knew it was trouble, because that's just not the normal route," he said. "All of a sudden it looked like it was pulling up slightly."
He biked on, then turned around to see the plane go down.
"I saw the splash," he said.
According to the FAA, the plane came down three minutes after takeoff.
Passenger Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., told the AP that he heard a loud noise two or three minutes into the flight. He looked out of the left side of the plane and could see one of the engines on fire.
"The captain said, 'Brace for impact because we're going down,' " Kolodjay said. He added, "It was intense. It was intense. You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing."
Once the plane was down, the ferries and other boats immediately went into action.
"Hurry up, guys! Man overboard!" shouted Vince Lombardi, the captain of the ferry Thomas Jefferson. Lombardi and his crew were among the first at the scene and rescued 56 people, he said. "They were shouting 'I'm cold, I'm cold.' "
One woman was in a life raft with her baby and refused to hand the child to rescuers, Lombardi said. Crew member Wilfred Rivera said he kept shouting, "Hand me the baby! Hand me the baby!" Eventually, the mother and child were rescued together, he said.
Lombardi said he had struggled to "maintain the boat with the wind and the tide and the cold all working against us."
Most passengers lined up on the wings, even as the wings began to submerge, and were able to step directly onto rescue craft, which included police and fire boats. Some, however, jumped into the water to get closer to the boats. Det. Michael Delaney, a New York Police Department diver, said he quickly got into the water in a wetsuit and spotted a woman floating near the plane.
"I swam over to her and grabbed her," he said.
"She was very frantic at the time. She said, 'Please don't let me go!' "
Later, Delaney said, he went into the plane as it was sinking in 65-foot-deep water and searched it from front to back. By that time, he said, water was up to the level of headrests on the passenger seats. The plane was filling quickly, but no people remained.
The plane was finally entirely submerged about an hour after landing. It was later re-floated and brought to a Manhattan dock.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly estimated that within five minutes of the plane hitting the water, all passengers had been taken aboard boats.
Bloomberg, talking to reporters later, spoke highly of the numerous organizations, public and private, that had cooperated in the rescue. Poor coordination and communication between the New York police and fire departments had been a serious problem when terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sept. 11 was not far from the minds of many New Yorkers who witnessed the emergency landing. Paterson seemed to refer to it at a news conference when he observed that the city had experienced many difficult days.
"This," he said, "is a day to make us realize how blessed this city is."
Times staff writers Joanna Lin, Peter Pae and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times