All 155 aboard survive crash of jetliner into icy N.Y. river

Passengers stood on the wings of the US Airways plane as a ferry pulled up on the Hudson River in New York. Many feared the plane would sink immediately. Passengers stood on the wings of the US Airways plane as a ferry pulled up on the Hudson River in New York. Many feared the plane would sink immediately. (gary hershorn/Reuters)
By Robert D. McFadden
New York Times / January 16, 2009
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NEW YORK - A US Airways jetliner with 155 people aboard lost power in both engines, possibly after striking birds, after taking off from LaGuardia Airport yesterday afternoon, but the pilot ditched in the icy Hudson River and all on board were rescued by a flotilla of converging ferries and emergency boats, authorities said.

It was the first commercial jet crash in this country in 30 months, since 49 people died when a plane crashed on takeoff in Lexington, Ky., in 2006. But what might have been a catastrophe in New York was averted by a pilot's quick thinking and deft maneuvers, and by the nearness of rescue boats that witnesses and officials called miraculous.

As stunned witnesses watched from high-rise buildings on both banks, the Airbus A320, which had risen to 3,200 feet over the Bronx and banked left, came downriver, flying lower than many apartment terraces and windows, in a carefully executed touchdown that sent up huge plumes of water at midstream, between West 48th Street in Manhattan and Weehawken, N.J.

On board, the pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III, 57, unable to get back to LaGuardia, decided to avoid densely populated areas and try for the Hudson, and had warned the 150 passengers to brace for a hard landing. Most had their heads down as the jetliner pancaked and then slammed into the water, just three minutes after takeoff on what was to have been a flight to Charlotte, N.C.

Many on board and watching from the banks were shocked that the aircraft did not sink immediately. Instead, it floated, slowly spinning and drifting south in strong currents, while three New York Waterways commuter ferryboats moved in. Moments later, terrified passengers began swarming out the emergency exits into brutally cold air and onto the submerged wings of the bobbing jetliner, which began taking on water.

When the first ferryboat nudged alongside, witnesses said, some passengers were able to leap onto its deck. Others were helped aboard by ferry crews. Soon, an armada of police boats, fireboats, tugboats, and Coast Guard craft converged on the aircraft, and some of them attached lines to the plane to keep it afloat. Helicopters brought in police divers, who dropped into the water to help with the rescues.

Over the next hour, as a captivated city watched continuous television reports and the Hudson turned from gold to silver in the gathering winter twilight, all the passengers, including at least one baby, both pilots, and all three flight attendants were transferred to the rescue boats - a feat that unfolded while the white-and-blue jetliner continued to drift south.

When his passengers and flight crew were out, Sullenberger walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure the plane was empty, officials said.

Brought ashore on both sides of the river, the survivors were taken to hospitals in Manhattan and New Jersey, mostly for treatment of exposure to the brutal cold: 18 degrees in the air, 35 degrees in the water, which many had stood in on the wings up to their waists.

Still, most of them walked ashore, some grim with fright and shivering with cold, wrapped in borrowed coats. But others were smiling, and a few were ready to give interviews to mobs of reporters and television cameras. Some described their survival as a miracle, a sentiment repeated later by city and state officials; others gave harrowing accounts of an ordeal whose outcome few might have imagined in such a crisis.

Even the aircraft was saved for examination by investigators - towed down the Hudson and tied up at Battery Park City.

"We've had a miracle on 34th Street," Governor David A. Paterson said at a late-afternoon news conference in Manhattan. "I believe now we've had a miracle on the Hudson. This pilot, somehow, without any engines, was somehow able to land this plane."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that there had been few injuries and that the pilot had done "a masterful job."

Doug Parker, chairman and chief executive of US Airways, and officials of the Federal Aviation Administration, said Flight 1549 had taken off from LaGuardia at 3:26 p.m., bound for Charlotte, N.C. It headed north, across the East River and over the Bronx on a route that would involve a sweeping left turn to head south. But both engines lost power about a minute into the flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board and state and local agencies are to investigate the cause of the crash, but early indications were that the plane's engines had shut down after having ingested a flock of birds - variously described as geese or gulls.

Without power, returning to the airport was out of the question, aviation specialists said, and the pilot radioed air traffic controllers on Long Island that his plane had sustained a "double bird strike." He saw a small airport in the distance, apparently the one in Teterboro, N.J., but decided to head down the Hudson and make a water landing.

Aviation experts said such a maneuver is tricky. A too-steep angle of descent could have broken off the wings and sent the aircraft to the bottom.

Witnesses in buildings on both sides of the river described a gradual descent that appeared to be carefully controlled.

Susan Obel, a retiree who lives on West 70th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in a 20th-floor apartment, saw the plane flying at an amazingly low altitude. "When you see a plane somewhere that it isn't supposed to be, you get that eerie feeling," she said. "I didn't think it was a terrorist, but I did worry."

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