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Hero pilot ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s hometown honors its hero son

The US Airways pilot who deftly landed a disabled passenger jet in New York’s Hudson River, saving 155 lives, told a cheering crowd of thousands Saturday that he simply did his job.

Danville, a well-to-do suburb east of San Francisco, welcomed back Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and hailed him as its “hometown hero” in an outdoor ceremony replete with brass and marching bands, bagpipes, plaques and proclamations, and a slew of speeches by local officials. A retired fighter pilot in a P-51 Mustang even buzzed the event.

Sullenberger, in a dark suit and tie, sat on a stage next to his tear-stained wife, Lorrie, and smiled and placed his hand over his heart as the crowd whooped and hollered, waved small American flags and hoisted signs that read, “Sully’s Soaring Saved Souls,” “Sullyfied Hero” and “Excellent Landing!” The Sullenbergers’ two teenage daughters, Katie and Kelly, watched from the front row.

When it came time to speak, the tall, thin, gray-haired Sullenberger was a man of few words. He said it was “great to be here in Danville” and expressed his family’s gratitude for the celebration. He made only a brief mention of the event that has won him worldwide fame.

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“I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do,” Sullenberger said in a strong, clear voice. “Thank you.”

With that, he sat down, and the crowd again erupted. Parents held children on their shoulders to catch a glimpse of their now-famous neighbor on the Town Green, bordered with naked sycamore trees and American flags and jammed with people as far as the eye could see.

Lorrie Sullenberger, wearing a pink jacket and dark slacks, also addressed the crowd, weeping.

“I seem to have this uncontrollable problem with my tears lately,” the fitness expert said. “I am so sorry.”

She said she and her husband were “breathtaken” when they first glimpsed the large crowd, and she spoke of her love for the town, its annual Easter egg hunts, holiday tree lightings and Fourth of July parades.

“It felt so good to come home the other day to such a safe place,” she said, referring to their return from Washington, where the family was invited to attend President Obama’s inauguration.

She called her husband “the most honorable man I know,” and said she was not surprised that the harrowing incident had ended well “because I know my husband.”

To her, she said, Sullenberger is simply “the man who makes my cup of tea every morning.”

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Sullenberger, who turned 58 on Friday, asked town leaders to keep the event low-key. To accommodate his wishes, the ceremony lasted a mere hour. A 17-year-old high school student sang the national anthem, and one of the bands played “God Bless America.”

Local officials spoke of Sullenberger’s calm and expert flying, noting that he had just two minutes to decide what to do when the jet lost power in both engines Jan. 15 after hitting a flock of birds shortly after takeoff.

“He had only about 121 seconds,” said Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich. “I can’t even say my name that fast, and he had to make all those decisions.”

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) presented Sullenberger with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. “Because of his actions, 155 Americans are safely home with their families,” the congressman said.

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Sullenberger rose to accept each gift and silently held each one aloft for the audience to see.

The crowd began gathering nearly two hours before the event under dark skies that spilled intermittent raindrops.

“I came to see a hero,” said Terry Hines, 53, who runs a computer business and had driven with his wife 45 miles from Campbell for the event. “We fly all the time, and it is just unbelievable what he did.”

John Harper, 57, who works in real estate, said he knew the Sullenbergers. “He would be the last person who would want this kind of stuff,” Harper said, indicating the hoopla.

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Susan Barclay, 60, a retiree, said her family has lived in Danville for 32 years and came because “it’s not too often to see a hometown hero from a small town.”

Danville is a family-oriented community known for good schools, low crime and expensive real estate.

The Contra Costa County town of 42,500 sits in the shadow of towering Mt. Diablo, flanked on the opposite side by hills covered with oaks and redwoods.

The city is next to the wealthy, glitzy, gated community of Blackhawk, and the downtown includes trendy restaurants and shops.

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Saturday’s celebration occurred as Danville was still reeling from the killing of a 17-year-old boy last week, a slaying that made headlines because of the rarity of local crime. Police have arrested a 15-year-old Alameda County boy in the killing and have said drugs appeared to have been involved.

Sullenberger and his family live in a modern, hillside development of upper-middle-class homes with fountains in well-tended yards. He and his wife are frequently seen walking or running along the quiet streets, usually with a dog in tow, neighbors said.

They said the family has raised guide dogs for the blind, walked to raise money for cancer research and collected books and food for the poor.

Sullenberger’s neighbors also predicted, rightly, that he would be uncomfortable in the spotlight.

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The pilot declined to take questions from the media, which arrived in droves for the event, and said through a spokesperson that he would not discuss the accident while it remained under investigation.

But fame is fame, and Sullenberger could not escape it.

A Wikipedia list of “notable” people who have lived in Danville starts with Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, includes sports figures and such celebrities as model Christy Turlington, and even mentions one former resident the town might prefer to forget -- Sara Jane Moore, who tried to assassinate President Ford.

Sullenberger’s name now ends the list.

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Sullenberger grew up in Denison, Texas, where his father was a dentist and his mother a teacher. He had a distinguished but short career flying for the military before moving to commercial aviation, serving the last 29 years as a captain with US Airways.

He also is a certified glider pilot and has served as a local safety chairman and accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Assn., International.

The US Airways jet had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when it hit the geese and lost power.

Sullenberger, judging that the plane could not make it to an airport and could crash into an urban neighborhood, decided to ditch the plane in the Hudson River, bringing it down intact on the water.

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After the evacuation, Sullenberger twice walked the sinking plane’s watery aisle to make sure no one had been left behind. Once on shore, the consummate professional spoke with police, his blue suit barely wrinkled and his tie not even loosened.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com


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