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155 People Walk Away From Jet's Water Landing

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 have a lot of people to thank this morning. There is the pilot, who safely landed the crippled aircraft in the Hudson River yesterday afternoon; there are the ferry-boat, workers who helped rescue all 155 people on board; then there are the emergency crews, who pulled people from the frigid water. NPR's Robert Smith tells us the story from New York.

ROBERT SMITH: It was three in the afternoon when Captain Chesley Sullenberger pushed back Flight 1549 from the gate at LaGuardia Airport. It was a clear, freezing day, very little wind, and everything seemed normal as the plane climbed over the northern end of Manhattan. Then, a minute after takeoff, Sullenberger radioed air traffic control. He said they had a double bird strike, which usually means birds have hit both engines. For the passengers onboard, it sounded like...

Mr. JEFF KOLODJAY (Passenger, US Airways Flight 1549): Explosion and our plane dropped. That was scary.

SMITH: Jeff Kolodjay was in seat 22A. He could see smoke coming from the left engine.

Mr. KOLODJAY: It was pretty scary, man. Like, I thought he was going to say, circle back to LaGuardia, because I've flown out of LaGuardia a lot, and I knew you could come around this way and circle in, in that runway over there, and he goes, just brace for impact. I said, oh, this is going to be ugly, man.

SMITH: Six rows forward, Fred Berretta looked out his window and saw the Hudson River coming up fast below the plane.

Mr. FRED BERRETTA (Passenger, US Airways Flight 1549): The only time there was really shouting was when we were just about to hit the water, and people were yelling to the folks in the exit row to prepare to get the doors open.

SMITH: From the office buildings of midtown Manhattan, people who saw the plane land in the water said it seemed under control. The captain, Chesley Sullenberger III, is a former fighter pilot with 40 years flying experience. Already, aviation experts are calling it one of the most remarkable emergency landings they've seen. But the pilot was also lucky. The plane went down right across from the ferry terminal of New York Waterways. Vinnie Lombardi, the captain of the ferry Thomas Jefferson, was just pulling out when he saw the floating aircraft and its frightened passengers.

Mr. VINNIE LOMBARDI (Ferry Boat Captain, Thomas Jefferson, NY Waterway): They were on the raft on the wing, and there were a few people in the water.

SMITH: He was over there in three minutes, and the crew knew exactly what to do. They practiced these water rescues every couple of weeks. Hector Rabanez and Wilfredo Rivera went to the railing of the ship.

Mr. WILFREDO RIVERA (Crewmember, Thomas Jefferson, NY Waterway): People are panicky. They said, hurry up.

Mr. HECTOR RABANEZ (Deckhand, Thomas Jefferson, NY Waterway): Yeah, they said the water's cold. The water's cold. The water's cold.

Mr. RIVERA: Because the water's cold. Everybody was nervous, everybody's screaming, so everybody was in shock. So, I tell Hector, let's get the ladder down. We got the ladder down. We started getting people off.

SMITH: They rescued 56 people. Meanwhile, 14 other boats had arrived to help. A police helicopter hovered above the scene. Rescue diver Michael Delaney saw a woman in distress in the 42-degree water and jumped in.

Detective MICHAEL DELANEY (Harbor Scuba Team, New York Police Department): She was very frantic at the time. I just told her to relax. I asked her what her name was. She said, please don't let me go. She thought that the boat was going to run over us at the time. And then we helped her up on to the boat.

SMITH: The plane's Captain Sullenberger twice walked the aisles of his aircraft, making sure that every passenger was out. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a pilot himself, had nothing but praise.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Independent, New York City): The pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then making sure that everybody got out.

SMITH: People who have worked with Sullenberger say they aren't surprised. Sully, as he's know to his friends, runs a safety consulting company on the side and is a member of UC Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. Bob Bea, the co-founder of the center, said he got goose bumps when he heard Sully was the pilot.

Dr. ROBERT BEA (Civil Engineering, Co-founder, Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, University of California, Berkeley): I thought, well, if I was on that airplane, I'd want Sully at the flight deck in charge, because he knows how to do it right.

SMITH: After the rescue, the half-submerged US Airways plane floated down the Hudson River. It was eventually towed to the southern tip of Manhattan. It's docked there this morning, awaiting the 20-person federal team who will figure out just what happened to the flight. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: One more thing: As of this morning, there were already 11 Facebook fan clubs devoted to Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III. One group of the pilot's fans has 650 members and growing, and there are about 200 comments from Rockford, Illinois, England, Germany and Nigeria. The one from Nigeria reads: You are the man! My hats are doffed for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.