It was January 14th, 2009. The New Year was in full swing. Something was different for me this year. It was something I could not quite put my finger on. It was something that made me pensive and reflective.
I had been traveling to New York on business almost every week for the past few months. The week of January 11th, however, I was not scheduled to go. On Wednesday the 14th, right after a conference call about a project that was coming to a close, I felt it was important for me to finish the task in person. I discussed it with my manager and informed him I would take a mid-afternoon flight and be there for the meetings that evening.
My assistant quickly reviewed the flight options with me as I multi-tasked, replying to e-mails and gathering materials for the trip. On most trips to New York, I returned on an evening or night flight. When my assistant walked into my office and asked me my preference, I said to book me on the afternoon flight and I could always push it back, if needed.
As I did not have a change of clothes, I hurried home to pack. I pulled into my driveway, ran up the stairs from our garage, rushed to fold an extra suit and change of clothes, threw my dopp kit into my briefcase, and shot out the door. Strangely, I felt slightly uneasy about the trip, probably due to the concern of whether the meetings would go well or not.
The weather was clear and sunny, but cold. I arrived in New York and made my way into Manhattan. I usually took time in the morning to commit to 15 or 20 minutes of meditation and prayer, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution. That day I had skipped it and decided to make up for it while waiting for the time to leave the hotel for my meetings. I did not have much time, but enough to say some kind of prayer. As I looked at my briefcase, it occurred to me that it was also a good time to clean it out.
As I removed paperwork and emptied all the contents of my briefcase, I found two old prayer booklets. I had forgotten about them and glanced over each. One was called the Pieta, which contained a variety of devotional prayers, some of which were many centuries old. The other was a small booklet on the Divine Mercy Chaplet. On the cover was a picture of Christ from a painting with two rays of light shining out from his chest; one red, the other pale white. The booklet contained excerpts from a diary kept by a Polish nun in the 1930s. She claimed to have had visions of Jesus and even dialogue with him. There were several quotations from her diary, but one in particular struck me. It was regarding the 3 o’clock hour, the hour in which Christ died on the cross: “In this hour,” Christ told her, “I will refuse nothing to the soul that makes a request of Me in virtue of My Passion.” As it happened to be the 3 o’clock hour, I reflected on that and began to pray the chaplet. I prayed slowly and with devotion, in a way that was unusual for me.
By 11:45 the next day, after an attempt to connect with a fellow associate for lunch whom I could not reach, I decided to go ahead and make my way to the airport.
I headed to the corner of Fifth and hailed a cab. By the time I finished a call, I arrived at LaGuardia. I checked in at the computer kiosk and examined the available seats to see if I could move farther up, as I was reserved in seat 16A, a window seat on the left side of the plane just behind the wing.
I sat down in the waiting area and continued reading and periodically checking e-mails. Zone 1 was called to board, so I took my place in line and boarded. I had been hoping I might be called to take an open first class seat, but the flight was completely full.
The wheels lifted off runway four, and I heard the familiar sound of the landing gear retracting, followed by the slight feel of them tucking themselves into the wings. The takeoff felt smooth and perfect, and I reclined my seat just slightly to make a little more room to adjust to the confinement of a coach window seat.
Then, I heard a noise I had never experienced before on a plane. It was like a thud of something impacting the fuselage somewhere, but exactly what it was or where it hit, I could not discern. Within an instant, I was jolted out of my quiet, personal sojourn by a loud explosion. I heard it come from the left, but it also seemed to be everywhere at the same time. The plane shook violently from side to side and then settled back to normal.
3:27:32 New York TRACON: “Cactus 1549, turn left heading two seven zero.”
3:27:36 Captain Sullenberger: “Ah, this is … Cactus 1549 hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.”
3:27:42 New York TRACON: “OK yeah, you need to return to LaGuardia. Turn left, heading of, uh, two two zero.”
The pilot began to level off and make a left turn, gradually at first, then more pronounced. I continued looking at the engine, hoping it would not set the wing on fire or explode. I could hear passengers asking each other what was going on, not frantically, but with intensity and raised voices. I looked at the man to my right and indicated that we had lost the left engine. He was trying to look at it from his vantage point as well. I turned back and just kept staring at it, knowing any second the Captain would tell us what had happened, that we had lost the left engine and were making our way back to LaGuardia.
3:28:05 New York TRACON: “Cactus 1549, if we can get it to you, do you want to try to land runway one three?”
3:28:11 Captain Sullenberger: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.”
As we continued to bank to the left, then level off, I heard the second sound that I had never heard on a plane before: silence. There was no sound, just the faint hint of the wind passing by outside and a very slight puffing noise, ever so soft, still coming from the left engine.
At that moment, I felt a surge of something in my blood, perhaps adrenaline, perhaps fear, but nothing that made me feel good. I looked again out my window and then at the man to my right. We were just stunned, sitting there in an eerily quiet atmosphere that we knew conveyed some kind of doom.
3:28:55 New York TRACON: “OK yeah, off to your right side is Teterboro airport.”
3:29:02 “Do you want to try and go to Teterboro?”
3:29:03 Captain Sullenberger: “Yes.”
3:29:21 New York TRACON: “Cactus 1549, turn right two eight zero. You can land runway one at Teterboro.”
3:29:25 Captain Sullenberger: “We can’t do it.”
3:29:26 New York TRACON: “OK, which runway would you like at Teterboro?”
3:29:28 Captain Sullenberger: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
3:29:33 New York TRACON: “I’m sorry, say again, Cactus.”
I knew we could not be far from LaGuardia, but we were descending toward the city skyline, and I still could not make out anything that resembled an airport. Just then the plane made what I recall to be a simultaneously descending right turn, and we were squarely over the Hudson River. I heard the distinctive sound of the flaps being extended a notch. The captain had still not said anything to us, and it seemed like an eternity had passed, even though it was only a few minutes, perhaps no more than three.
As the river approached, the voice we were all anticipating with every fiber of our beings, the one we would cling to for every answer to our frantic minds, finally came over the intercom. Commanding but calm, intense but in control, it uttered only three words: “Brace for impact.”
As the reality of those three words and our situation began to fully sink in, I knew then we were not headed for any airport. I could see the water approaching, and the Captain had said, “impact” and not “landing.” I looked at the man to my right, and I knew where we were going. I shook my head and said, “We’re going in the water.” He glanced out the window and then stared straight ahead. I saw the same look in his eyes I knew had been in mine. The full range of emotions, captured in an instant, like a mirror into the soul, the soul of a man facing death.
I glanced back at the men in my row, made eye contact, and thought I should say something, but what? We just looked at each other, with shocking stares, and then went into our own worlds, for whatever time we had left.
At those moments, the atmosphere on board the plane, the serene view of Manhattan, and the deep blue of the clear sky made it all seem peaceful in a strange way. I thought about my family, my wife and four children, and my eyes started to water. I thought about how hard it would be for them, and I felt so sad about leaving them, halfway through my life. I just shook my head and closed my eyes.
While I cannot say I witnessed my life flash before my eyes, I suppose I did experience a hybrid version of that. I thought about my life holistically for a few seconds, as a boy, an adolescent, and as a man. I knew I had tried to do my best and had made mistakes. Having been to confession the weekend before and having just received the Eucharist, I felt I could meet God as I was, but desperately wanted more time.
As we continued to descend, I thought I should try to find my BlackBerry and call home. I had forgotten it was in my pocket, thinking I had stowed it in my briefcase. There wasn’t time, I thought.
Then a small epiphany occurred in my mind. I thought about the Chaplet of Mercy I had prayed the day before, and I recalled the words of Jesus to Sister Faustina. Nothing would be refused if prayed in the 3 o’clock hour. I could see the image of Jesus, smiling, on the front of the cover, and I wanted to retrieve that booklet too, but I knew we had just seconds left until we hit the water. I just didn’t have time, so I just thought about the image.
In my mind, and with all the devotion and intensity I could muster, I said, “God, please be merciful to us, for the sake of your Son. Please spare us. I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Mother of God, help us.” I then said the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary, or maybe two. I looked out the window again, and we were below the skyline rooftops, the river approaching fast.
Then, I knew I needed to accept the outcome, whatever it may be. I needed to reconcile to the fact that I was not in control, and I had to make a decision. I did not want to go into that river in anger or denial, and my conscience was being moved to make a decision. Like the Captain who had to decide in a few seconds where to glide a 73-ton jetliner to minimize loss of life, I had to make a decision on where to point my soul. I closed my eyes, trying to envision the image of Jesus I had seen the day before on the Mercy booklet, and said again, “Please be merciful to us. … But it’s OK, it’s OK.”
“Ten seconds!” a man shouted. I bowed my head, clutching the left armrest and placing my right hand over my chest. With my right hand I felt the smooth side of the prayer booklet in my pocket, and then I closed my eyes.
The sleek plane finally met the water, which felt like concrete, with landing gear up and no wheels to absorb the impact, and it felt tremendous. My head smashed into something twice, but I kept my eyes shut. The jolt of the crash landing and the sound of the explosion of water seemed surreal. The plane shook back and forth, and at any second I thought death would come. Would it be from splitting apart and water hitting us at over a 120 miles per hour? Would we cartwheel across the river and all be thrown out of the plane, dying instantly or drowning within seconds? My senses strained to feel it coming, as if I could somehow prepare for it and defend myself.
Then, midst the sound of a rushing waterfall, I felt gravity pulling us hard to the right as the back of the plane moved counterclockwise. The centrifugal force was similar to some twisting and turning amusement ride, though it lacked the surety of a positive ending. As we slid, I felt this was it at last. These were finally the culminating moments. We were about to roll over and break up.
Suddenly, the turning stopped, and the splashing sound of water slowly subsided. The plane rocked a little, and I looked up, and I was simply astonished at what I saw. I could tell we were floating, with the nose pointing out of the water slightly, and the fuselage was fully intact!
Once the shock of still being alive and seeing the plane floating, seemingly in one piece, wore off, I said to the man on my right, “We can do this! We can get through this!”
As I slid down the shoot into the raft, I could feel the cold penetrate me, and my right hand in particular was trembling. The raft was crowded, and I worried that some passengers might panic, and we would tip over.
I glanced back at the open door, and then it struck me. As I looked down into the water, two tether cords connected the raft to the plane. I sort of froze as I looked at them. Not having any idea how long the rescue would take for the passengers on the wing and seeing the plane continue to sink, the wave of fear came over me once again. If we could not be rescued in time, the plane would sink, dragging the lifeboat with it, and we would all be in the river, fighting for our lives in the frigid waters.
I shouted to the few men who stood on the deck of the bow, as they began throwing life preservers to us, some making the raft, others going into the water. “We need a knife! We need a knife! Can you find a knife or something to cut?”
Finally, one of them realized our predicament, and there was a discussion among them. One approached the rail of the bow and looked at me, holding a pocketknife in his hand. I knelt down in the raft and looked right at him. He slowly made the pitch, and I prayed with all my might to not miss the catch. The knife met my hands, and I clutched it. Quite cold and numb, I could not make my fingers work to open the knife. I gave it to another passenger, and he opened it and handed it back. I cut the tether, and we were free of the plane.
I looked up, and a man on the deck of the ferryboat several feet above me must have read my mind. He lowered the loop end of a very thick rope. I would hold one end, and he would hold the other, stabilizing the raft and keeping it as close as possible to the ferryboat.
The women exited one by one, and we made a makeshift stairway out of the seat cushions so the step onto the edge of the raft was less precarious. We worried that someone might fall, just as they left the raft and leapt forward to the ladder.
Finally a tall man, the last one on the raft except myself, looked at me and gestured to go ahead. I nodded and just said, “I’m fine, wanna keep the raft tight.” I was worried if I let go of the rope, we might push back from the ferryboat. He went up the ladder and disappeared.
I slid the looped rope off my right arm and grabbed onto the rails quickly. Not wanting to be too hasty and risk slipping, I made sure my footing was secure on each rung. Step by step I climbed, shivering to the bone.
As my eyesight cleared the top rung, I looked up and saw two men, like sentinels of mercy, each with an arm outstretched toward me. I looked down at my feet to see if they were making their way squarely on the steps. As I reached the top of the ladder and moved forward onto the deck, the men half hugged me, patting me on the back as I walked by them. My eyes welled up for the first time, and I fought off the tears. They said, “Great job! You’re OK, you made it, you made it, you’ve all made it!”
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