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Enjoying their do-over

Plane crash behind them, six area golfers try again

It took a little longer than they expected, but (from left) Rob Kolodjay, Jim Stefanik, Jeff Kolodjay, Dave Carlos, Rick Delisle, and Jorge Morgado finally made it to Myrtle Beach. It took a little longer than they expected, but (from left) Rob Kolodjay, Jim Stefanik, Jeff Kolodjay, Dave Carlos, Rick Delisle, and Jorge Morgado finally made it to Myrtle Beach. (Photo Courtesy of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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Myrtle Beach, all six men agreed, never looked or felt or sounded so good. The weather was better, the golf courses greener, the flowers more colorful. But that was only part of it. The laughs were deeper and louder, the stories funnier, the smiles wider, the drinks colder, the food tastier. Even the bad golf shots were met with only a slight smirk and a simple shrug.

Yes, the 2009 edition of the annual golf trip to South Carolina was unlike any of the others that came before.

When you've fallen from the sky in an Airbus A320, felt the frigid waters of the Hudson River rise up after your stricken plane splashed down, and walked across the wing and away from an aviation miracle, your perspective is bound to change. And so it has.

"Golf became a lot less relevant, but probably more enjoyable, because you don't get as worked up about it," said Jorge Morgado. "I'm one of these high-strung business guys, always on the move. If there was something left to do it bothered me. The way I look at it now: There's always tomorrow."

Said Rick Delisle: "I reflect on what happened and how close we came to losing everything, so it makes me look at things a little differently. I leave myself a note saying 'Don't sweat the small stuff.' "

Morgado and Delisle were two of the six friends from Chicopee, Mass., whose golf trip to Myrtle Beach was interrupted on Jan. 15 when US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River after colliding with a flock of Canada geese minutes after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. All 150 passengers and five crew members escaped, with only mild injuries and some cases of hypothermia reported.

More than three months after the crash, Morgado, Delisle, and four others - Jeff Kolodjay and his father, Rob, Jim Stefanik, and Dave Carlos - finally made it back to Myrtle Beach for four days of golf, sun, and fun. This time, they went by car.

'Numb, helpless feeling'
Choosing to pile into an SUV and making the 14-hour drive wasn't something any of the six had any interest in on the morning of Jan. 15 after they discovered their direct flight to Myrtle Beach on Spirit Airlines had been canceled.

Frantically searching for an alternate airline before resigning themselves to a long day on the road, they found an option on US Airways Flight 1549, which was scheduled to leave in an hour. It could only take them as far as Charlotte, and there were only six seats left.

"We thought we were the luckiest six guys, that it was meant to be," said Stefanik. "We were kidding around saying how great it was, because nobody really wanted to drive the 14 hours down there anyway."

Grabbing the last six seats meant they'd be slightly spread out. Stefanik was in seat 6A, Rob Kolodjay 6C. Most were in the front part of the aircraft; only Jeff Kolodjay was sitting near the back. Four were seated on the left side of the plane, two on the right.

Something went very wrong very quickly. "Before the flight I remember sitting there thinking 'Man, technology is amazing,' " said Morgado. "Then before you know it I was in the Hudson."

The passengers seemed to take their cue from an experienced crew, with a calm, steady demeanor taking hold instead of the panicked pushing and shoving one might expect. There was also a chivalrous touch, with women and children being assisted off the plane first.

"Not that I think everybody should experience something like that," Jeff Kolodjay said, "but it was a nice way to see humanity at a pretty scary time. We came together to make sure that everyone, not just themselves, would make it out."

But make no mistake: There was urgency, and a feeling that, despite the plane floating precariously in the river, the threat of danger still lurked. It might sink. It might explode.

"I started reaching for my carry-on and then I said 'Just get the heck out of here,' " Delisle recalled. "So I started yelling back to everybody else 'Just your bodies, we need to get out now!'

"It was a numb, helpless feeling," Delisle said. "Plus, I wasn't sure if that wing or engine was going to blow up."

The plane remained intact, with ferries on the scene within minutes and transporting passengers to safety. Jeff Kolodjay remembers cutting a life raft off the plane, floating around toward the wing where four of the other five were standing, and making eye contact with Stefanik, his cousin.

"We looked at each other in amazement," Kolodjay said, "and I kind of put my hands up like 'What the heck is going on? What just happened?' "

Star treatment
It took hours for the six to reunite, followed quickly by the first few signs that their lives would be forever altered. Reporters. Television cameras. An interview with "Dateline NBC." An appearance on "Good Morning America." A return to the crash site so they could meet Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and the crew who helped steer the crippled aircraft into the water.

Gone, at least for the time being, were the personal belongings they brought with them on the plane: Clothes, golf clubs, and other material items that could, and would, be replaced.

A few days after the crash, Jeff Kolodjay - the only one of the six who doesn't live in Chicopee; raised there, he now resides in South Norwalk, Conn. - received an e-mail from Bill Golden, the president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday who was in an Arizona airport when Flight 1549 crashed.

"Someone called me and said the person being interviewed on TV said they were on their way to Myrtle Beach," Golden said. "By the time I got back we had done some research and had identified Jeff Kolodjay. Obviously his world was upside down, but I waited a couple days and sent him an e-mail saying 'When you're ready to start talking about coming back down to Myrtle Beach, just let me know and we'll certainly take care of it.' "

Golden's invitation set a new plan in motion. With so much going on after the crash, it took some time for the six to settle on the new trip's details, specifically the dates, and because some didn't want to get back on an airplane so soon, the decision was made to drive.

Stefanik, who at the time was an assistant golf professional at Edgewood Golf Course in Southwick, Mass., also was contacted by a representative from Titleist, who wanted to bring the six down to the company's headquarters in Acushnet and let everybody select new equipment to replace the clubs that were on the plane. In early April, the six were treated to their own personal club-fitting day, able to choose new drivers, irons, wedges, and hybrids. For any clubs or putters they wanted but couldn't find, a catalog was on hand for special orders. Titleist also threw in hats, gloves, balls, bags, and shoes.

"They treated us like PGA Tour stars," Stefanik said. "Not a bad little deal."

Staying grounded
Five of the six piled into the SUV late last month and began the long road trip to Myrtle Beach, making it in 14 hours by driving through the night. Delisle had driven down by himself a few days earlier, but made the return trip with his five friends.

"We wanted to take the anxiety of flying out of it, so we decided to drive," Morgado said. "It was nice. We got to spend a little more time together."

Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, an association of hotels, resorts, and courses that helps vacationers plan their trip, took care of the accommodations, putting the six up at the Legends Resort. They also provided six rounds of golf, and took the group out to a Brazilian steakhouse for a welcoming dinner the first night. Martin's PGA Tour Superstore also chipped in, giving $500 gift certificates to each of the six, and Enterprise supplied the rental SUV.

The media was aware of their arrival, with local newspaper and television reporters chronicling their story and the Golf Channel sending a crew to film an episode that will launch a new series, "Golf in America." The Flight 1549 story is scheduled to debut on the Golf Channel at 10 p.m. June 23.

As for the golf? Not bad, considering the cameras and new equipment and it being their first rounds of the year. Jeff Kolodjay and Stefanik, not only cousins but former teammates on the Central Connecticut State golf team, flirted with par. Delisle was pleased with his three birdies.

"We were just average guys playing golf," said Morgado, an 11 handicap. "Everywhere we went we were treated like kings. It's something we won't ever forget."

Airing their feelings
Only three of the six have gotten back on an airplane since Flight 1549 went down. Stefanik and Carlos flew to Las Vegas weeks apart; Rob Kolodjay has a daughter who lives in Texas.

"I was a little nervous on the takeoff, but once we were in the air I kind of eased down," said Stefanik, who had made plans well before the Myrtle Beach trip to go to Las Vegas with his girlfriend for Super Bowl weekend. "I had a few cocktails."

For those who haven't flown since, any trepidation has been offset by inevitability.

"Am I going to get on a plane and hear some noises and be uncomfortable? I don't know. There's only one way to find out," Delisle said. "Something tells me I'm going to someday, because there's places I want to go and see, and about the only way to get there is to fly."

Said Morgado, whose next flight will likely come in December, for business: "The heart will be racing. The doctors have said you'll relive the moment all over again when you get back on the plane. But it's still the best way to travel. What are we going to do? Take a train 24 hours when we want to go to Disney World?"

Living with an experience so traumatic, although there were no fatalities or serious injuries, hasn't been easy. Stefanik said he still has dreams about it. Different dreams, but always the same outcome: a plane crash into some kind of water. Morgado has sought counseling, and said talking about it has been therapeutic.

"If you hold it all in it can be worse," Morgado said.

Three weeks ago the six were sent their belongings that were retrieved from Flight 1549. Golf clubs were rusted, clothes were damaged. But amid the items that were unsalvageable, a few were embraced, no matter their condition.

Delisle said he'll frame the copy of the Springfield Republican, and his boarding pass, that were still in his carry-on. Stefanik's father had given him a dollar coin from Bermuda, something Stefanik has used to mark his ball for almost 10 years. Stefanik's father died a few years after giving the coin to his son, so getting it back "was important to me, for sentimental reasons."

Dianne Kolodjay, Jeff's wife, always wrote a note when her husband traveled and would hide it, either in his suitcase, briefcase, or carry-on. The Kolodjays are expecting their first child, a boy, June 18. Not until his belongings were returned - after the golf trip to Myrtle Beach - did Kolodjay read the note his pregnant wife had penned in January.

"It said 'Have a good trip. Love, baby and me,' " Jeff Kolodjay said. "It was pretty touching to read it. It means a lot. It's something I'm certainly going to hold on to."

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com