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Two Wings and a Prayer

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Click here to read more on this incident, including comments by other EMS professionals, at JEMS Connect.

NEW YORK -- They all got out alive.

The 155 passengers and crew aboard US Airways Flight 1549 scrambled to safety yesterday after the jet's pilot coolly landed the aircraft in the frigid waters of the Hudson River and a fleet of ferry boats helped pluck the passengers off the wings, where they stood waiting.

Just three minutes after taking off from LaGuardia at 3:24 p.m. and bound for Charlotte, N.C., pilot Chesley Sullenberger radioed the tower that both engines on the twin-engine Airbus A320 had shut down after it apparently flew into a flock of geese. At 3:31 p.m., the pilot landed the craft in the Hudson, avoiding Manhattan's crowded west side.

The textbook landing, after the jet had climbed to at least 3,200 feet, was followed by a textbook rescue, as commuter ferries and emergency boats quickly scooped up the passengers as the jet floated in the water near 48th Street on one of the coldest days of the year. One victim suffered two broken legs, a paramedic said, but there were no reports of other serious injuries. Uninjured passengers were to be reunited with family members last night at the Crowne Plaza at LaGuardia Airport, while other passengers went on to Charlotte.

"We had a miracle on 34th Street," Gov. David A. Paterson said at a news conference a few hours after the emergency landing. "I believe now we've had a miracle on the Hudson."

Perfect landing

Sullenberger, 57, of Danville, Calif., "did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then making sure everyone got out," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

One eyewitness, Ben Vonklemperer, said "it looked like any other routine landing of a plane, except that it was on water. If you want to land a plane on the water, this is exactly how to do it."

Within minutes, passengers were able to emerge from the aircraft and, in a surreal scene, stood on the plane's crowded wings as they waited to be rescued.

They described harrowing moments shortly after takeoff when they heard an explosion and looked out to see at least one of the engines on fire. "The left engine just blew," said survivor Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn. "I was looking right at it because I was right there."

"We thought we were going to circle around, but we didn't have time. The captain said, 'Brace for impact because we're going down.'"

He said people put their heads on their laps and started praying. Kolodjay looked out over the water and "thought we had a chance" to survive. He said a Hail Mary.

"We hit the water pretty hard," he said, adding that some people hit their heads on the ceiling. "It was intense. It was intense. You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing."

Passenger Bill Zuhoski, 23, of Cutchogue, said "people rushed to the back of the plane. I thought I was going to drown back there. For a second I thought I was just going to die." Immersed in water almost up to his neck, he stripped off his clothes, thinking it would be easier to swim.

Another passenger, Fred Berretta, who was on his way home to Charlotte, N.C., from a business trip, told CNN the doors were opened on both sides of the plane "as soon as we hit the water."

As the passengers tried to scramble out, it was chaos, Kolodjay said. One woman with a baby, seated near the back, tried to crawl over the seat in front of her. "I just kept saying, 'relax, relax. Women and children first,'" Kolodjay said. "And then it [the plane] started filling with water - fast."

Still, Bloomberg said Sullenberger had enough time to walk through the slowly sinking plane twice to make sure all the passengers were out - either standing on the wings or in life rafts. Bloomberg said police divers had to rescue some of the passengers underwater. The one infant aboard appeared to be uninjured.

Berretta said he was part of a group that climbed onto the left wing. He said the wing was dipping into the water and "our initial thought was to see if the plane was sinking or if it would float. Our feet were pretty much in the water." Others such as Zuhoski of Cutchogue managed to get into life rafts.

A commuter ferry, the Thomas Jefferson of the company NY Waterway, arrived within minutes of the crash, and some of its own riders grabbed life vests and lines of rope and tossed them to plane passengers in the water. At least two people were in the water when they arrived.

"They were cheering when we pulled up," ferry captain Vincent Lombardi said. "We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying ... People were panicking. They said, 'hurry up, hurry up.' We gave them the jackets off our backs."

Crew member Hector Rabanes said: "The first time we saw it, it's like, Is this happening?" The Thomas Jefferson and other ferries approached slowly to avoid washing passengers off the plane with the wake.

Two police scuba divers said they pulled another woman from a lifeboat "frightened out of her mind" and lethargic from hypothermia. Another woman fell off a rescue raft, and the divers said they swam over and put her on a Coast Guard boat.

Hypothermia worries

The Coast Guard estimated the water was 36 degrees, while the air was 20 degrees. Some passengers suffering from hypothermia had to be wrapped in blankets. Paramedics treated at least 78 people, fire officials said.

The plane remained afloat as it drifted downriver. Gradually, the fuselage went under until about half of the tail fin and rudder was above water. Bloomberg said the aircraft finally wound up near Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan and about four miles from where the pilot ditched it.

Fire Dept. Capt. Richard Johnson, head of the Marine Alpha One boat, said his crew passed a line through the plane's cockpit, and then another line around the tail. They lashed both lines to their boat and to a second fire department boat, The McKeane, and then towed the plane to Battery Park City.

The National Transportation Safety Board will be there today examining the fuselage.

For some Manhattan residents, the sight of an airplane catapulting toward the Hudson River evoked fears of another 9/11-style attack. "I thought it was going to turn into a building," Alyse Zucker told WNBC/4. But the pilot "landed it on the water ... like he was landing on a runway."

Authorities said there were no indications terrorism was involved.

The Federal Aviation Administration says there were about 65,000 bird strikes to civil aircraft in the United States from 1990 to 2005, or about one for every 10,000 flights.

"They literally just choke out the engine and it quits," said Joe Mazzone, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot. He said air traffic control towers routinely alert pilots if there are birds in the area.

After the US Airway plane's engines cut out yesterday, an air controller initially told the pilot to divert to an airport in nearby Teterboro, N. J., according to Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. It was not clear why Sullenberger did not land at Teterboro.

One survivor Dave Sanderson, 47, of Charlotte, said he was lucky to be alive. "The pilot, he's the hero," Sanderson said. "The grace of God got me off that plane."



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