Saturday, September 18, 2010

God's Hand Was on All of Us

I travel 100,000 miles a year, so I’m in the air a lot. I usually schedule late flights that leave after I finish my work as a sales manager at Oracle. On January 15, I was booked on a 5:00 p.m. flight from New York to Charlotte. But my meeting wrapped up about 11:30 that morning. So I called my travel agent, and she got me on the 3:25 flight—US Airways 1549.

Just a normal flight back home. An hour and a half later I’d be back on the ground; two hours after that I’d be with my wife and kids.

I got on the plane, went to my seat, and did what I usually do—pray before the pilot takes off. I’ve been doing that since 9/11. I pray for the pilot’s strength and to please get us from here to there safely. And to take care of my family.

We were in the air about 90 seconds before the left engine blew. I was on that side, in seat 15A. I heard the explosion and saw the flames out the window. I didn’t realize we’d lost both engines—and all power.

It was stone quiet. People were looking around, not knowing what to do. We crossed over something; someone told me later it was the George Washington Bridge. We were pretty low. I kept seeing the water and the New York City skyline getting closer. I thought, The pilot’s probably going to have to ditch this thing in the Hudson River. About 30 seconds later, maybe even less, he said, “Brace for impact.” I looked around. Some people were locking arms; some people were crunching down. Others were praying. I heard people saying the Lord’s Prayer.

I braced my hands on the seat in front of me—and I started praying. I prayed for the power to have the strength to do the right thing. I prayed for forgiveness of my unconfessed sins. I prayed for the safety of my wife and kids. And I prayed that the last guy I talked to would call my wife and kids. Ten seconds later we hit the water.

I said to myself, I’m alive. I have to get out of here. Everyone else was thinking the same thing. Water was ankle-deep almost immediately. I stood next to the exit, helping people get out and onto the wing. I wanted to be sure no one was left behind. Some people were still in the front of the plane, working their way to the exits. But there was no one left in the back of the plane that I could see.

Then suddenly I saw a lady in the back, trying to get her suitcase and purse. I screamed at her to forget about the luggage. So did another guy. But she didn’t listen. She carried the suitcase and purse down the aisle and onto the wet, slippery wing, but then dropped both into the water. I grabbed her purse and threw it to her on the lifeboat.

At that point, I had one foot in the plane, one foot out on the wing, and I was slipping around. The inflatable lifeboat from the plane was just about full. People were packed on both wings, struggling like me to keep their footing.

One woman couldn’t jump to the lifeboat because she was holding a nine-month-old baby boy. She was afraid to hand her child to anyone. Another man and I told her to toss the baby to the women in the lifeboat just a couple of feet away. But she was too scared. Finally, she did toss her baby to people in the lifeboat, and then she made it safely into the boat herself.

I believe God had his hands on that baby’s life—and on all of us. The woman could have slipped on that wing pretty easily while clutching her baby. If she’d fallen in that frigid river, he could have died. It was 11 degrees in New York that day, and the water temperature was just above freezing. People could only last 10 or 15 minutes in that water.

Photo: AP Photo/Tanyanika Samuels, Pool

The current was extremely strong, and I was afraid it would capsize the lifeboat. So I was holding on to the plane with one arm and hanging on to the lifeboat with the other. After about seven minutes, a tugboat came, and the crew threw a rope to the lifeboat. But when the tug backed up to head toward shore, it hit the plane. The plane shook beneath me, and I felt a splash of freezing water hit my back.

My mind flashed to the Titanic, and how it went straight down into icy water. I thought, I gotta get off that wing. By the grace of God, ferryboats began arriving. I jumped in the water and tried to swim. But I had no strength in my legs; I only made it six or seven strokes, max. Two men—God love them—finally grabbed my arms and pulled me onto a ferry. I slid across the deck, maybe ten feet, on the ice that formed.

Someone yelled at me, “You’ve got to get up and walk! You’ve got to move!” I stood up, but I had real trouble walking. I kept bumping into the side of things; I had no balance. I could barely move my legs. And I was so cold.

When we got to the dock, I was still frozen below my waist, and my blood pressure was skyrocketing. I found out later that the blood had gone out of my legs and into my heart and brain. Paramedics said I was at risk for a heart attack or stroke.

At the hospital, the nurses quickly discovered my core temperature was far too low, about 94.8. They wrapped a hot air blanket around me. At that point, a hospital chaplain came in, and for the first time I broke down. He and I prayed together, and had a real long talk. Then he gave me a copy of the New Testament, just in case I needed it, and went out to the lobby to call my wife to tell her I was okay.

My wife, Terry, is my hero. She took care of the kids when all hell was breaking loose that day. And since the crash, my family has been affected in amazing ways. My oldest daughter, Chelsey, is 17, when parents don’t seem to count for much. But she told a newspaper, “I’m much more grateful for my dad that I ever was.” Every day she talks to me; we connect. My second daughter, Colleen—she’s 15—has probably come up to me more than ever before to tell me that she loves me and texts me constantly. Courtney, my 11-year-old, hugs me every time she sees me and gets pretty emotional when I travel right now. My seven-year-old son, Chance, seems the least affected, but he has started connecting the dots; one night when I was tucking him in, he asked me what a plane crash was.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been on that flight. I think God put me there because it was my time to grow. He gave me the courage I needed to help others get off the plane and into the rescue boats. God’s hand was on all of us. He enveloped our pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger—gave him strength to guide the plane down and make a picture-perfect water landing. God put all the right people in all the right places at all the right times that day. I believe God was showing us that there is hope. This is a hopeful story. And the real story is God’s grace.

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