David Sanderson should not have actually been a passenger on US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009.
“I was actually supposed to be on the 5 p.m. flight that afternoon, but after I had a meeting at a Brooklyn at a distribution center,” Sanderson told an audience of approximately 300 people at the 63rd annual “Salute to the Press Night” at the Weehawken Elks Lodge Monday night. “But for me, it was all about how quickly I could get home to my wife and four kids. So I think I was on that plane for a reason.”
Sanderson was one of the last passengers to leave the fateful flight, now known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” when Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger calmly commandeered the powerless jet into the icy waters of the Hudson River, after the plane struck a flock of geese soon after taking off from LaGuardia Airport.
All 155 passengers and crew aboard that plane survived the crash. Since the unbelievable circumstances of that crash and the rescue and recovery, Sanderson, an executive with US Airways, has traveled the country to speak about his experience. He made the appearance in Weehawken as a favor to the first responders, including members of the North Hudson Fire & Rescue and the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad, who helped to save his life.
“I love this area,” Sanderson said. “They treat me like I’m one of their own, like I’m gold. This is the 176th time I’ve spoken, all around the country. I’ve never lived here, but this place is like my home. It’s all part of the power of faith. Because from the minute we took off from LaGuardia to the minute the plane crashed into the Hudson, I was in the Palisades Medical Center receiving treatment within 30 minutes. It was amazing.”
Sanderson said that he was seated toward the rear of the plane, when he heard a loud explosion.
“It certainly got my attention,” Sanderson said. “I then noticed fire coming out of the wing, so I knew something was wrong. I also noticed fire coming out of the other wing. But there was no panic anywhere. Not a word was said.”
Sanderson said that there was only one command that came from the cockpit from the heroic Sullenberger.
“As soon as we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I only heard, ‘Brace for impact,’” Sanderson said. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I just lowered my head and put my arms in front of me. We were fortunate to have a captain like Sully Sullenberger who had 40 years of experience, including air gliding experience.”
Sanderson said that when the plane skidded across the Hudson River, the hull of the plane was severed.
“Almost instantly, we were all in waist deep icy water,” Sanderson said. “How did we all get onto the wings of the plane in less than two minutes? Divine grace, I guess. I really don’t know.”
Sanderson then thanked the people he called the “real heroes of the Miracle on the Hudson.”
“The first responders were the real heroes,” Sanderson said. “First the ferries, the people from NY Waterways who got to us as quickly as they did. That was the first miracle. They got to us in less than two minutes.”
Sanderson said that the NY Waterways crews were putting people into lifeboats and pulling them to safety after standing on the wings for a few minutes.
One woman, a mother of three from Tennessee, was holding a three-month old baby.
“I said to her to throw me the baby,” Sanderson said. “I knew she wasn’t going to throw me the baby. But she gave the baby to someone and she was able to make it to the lifeboat. That’s what this was all about, people helping people. One hundred and forty eight people walked home that night. That was the miracle.”
Sanderson wasn’t as fortunate. Suffering from severe hypothermia and having to have his frozen underwear cut from his body, Sanderson spent the night at Palisades Medical Center, after receiving triage medical assistance at the former Arthur’s Landing restaurant.
The next day, Sanderson became a media darling, being interviewed from several media personnel, including CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric. Sanderson said that he received a pair of sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt from the American Red Cross, because he had nothing left.
“It’s why I am a strong proponent of the American Red Cross and the first responders,” Sanderson said. “They’re the reason why I’m here. What happened to me and everyone else had such an impact on everyone. I know I shouldn’t be here. I owe everything to them.”
Since the crash and recovery, Sanderson has been a spokesperson and representative for the survivors.
He said that he’s only been in the presence of Capt. Sullenberger three times, once at a press conference at LaGuardia after Sullenberger returned to active flight duty.
“I rushed to the airport to be there,” Sanderson said. “I went up to him and asked him, `What was the moment you knew you were going to be able to get the plane down safely?’ He said to me that it wasn’t hitting the water. It was getting over the bridge. He said that he cleared the bridge by only 300 feet. He said, `If I didn’t clear the bridge, there would have been a whole other set of circumstances to deal with. It would have been a dire disaster, because I thought we were headed right for the bridge.”
Maybe that’s the real “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Every year, the Weehawken Elks sponsor an essay contest about freedom of the press. This year’s winner was Nashwa Elangbawy, who received a gift from the Weehawken and You Civic Association.
“Papers like the New York Times and others will continue to inform the public, criticize public policy and shake up the status quo,” Elangbawy said. “They’ll be able to do so free of reprisal and free of repercussions.”
Representatives of both the Hudson Reporter Newspapers chain and the Jersey Journal spoke on behalf of their respective publications.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.