Remarkable passenger’s account of USAirways 1549 ditching

USAirways 1549.jpg

The ditching of the A320 itself was obviously pretty impressive, but in many ways that was only the start of the passengers’ problems and the fact that they all survived to tell the tale is quite incredible.

This account below by a manager at executive headhunters Heidrick & Struggles confirms just how dangerous the situation was and how close some passengers came to losing their lives. It’s by Gerry McNamara who, handily enough, is an ex-USMC captain.

This is from a Partner at Heidrick & Struggles who was on Flight 1549.

As many of you now know, Gerry McNamara (New York/Charlotte) was on US

Airways Flight 1549 last week. We caught up with him to discuss the

harrowing incident and – in a departure from our usual format -

present his stirring account as told to us:

Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm and I left the

Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia


I was scheduled for a 5pm departure, but able to secure a seat on the

earlier flight scheduled to leave at 3PM. As many of us who fly

frequently often do, I recall wondering if I’d just placed myself on a

flight I shouldn’t be on!

Just prior to boarding I finished up a conference call with my

associate, Jenn Sparks (New York), and our placement, the CIO of

United Airlines. When I told him that I was about to board a US

Airways flight, we all had a little fun with it.

I remember walking on the plane and seeing a fellow with grey hair in

the cockpit and thinking “that’s a good thing… I like to see grey

hair in the cockpit!”

I was seated in 8F, on the starboard side window and next to a young

business man. The New York to Charlotte flight is one I’ve taken what

seems like hundreds of times over the years. We take off north over

the Bronx and as we climb, turn west over the Hudson River to New

Jersey and tack south. I love to fly, always have, and this flight

plan gives a great view of several NY landmarks including Yankee

Stadium and the George Washington Bridge.

I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next to

me when we heard a terrible crash – a sound no one ever wants to hear

while flying – and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt.

10 seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel. I knew we

would be landing and thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to

Newark Airport. As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining

up on the river still – I thought – en route for Newark.

Next thing we heard was “Brace for impact!” – a phrase I had heard

many years before as an active duty Marine Officer but never before on

a commercial air flight. Click for more…

Everyone looked at each other in shock. It all happened so fast we

were astonished!

We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in. This is the

last flight. I’m going to die today. This is it. I recited my favorite

bible verse, the Lord’s Prayer, and asked God to take care of my wife,

children, family and friends.

When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and

family….getting off a last message. My blackberry was turned off and

in my trouser pocket…no time to get at it. Our descent continued and I

prayed for courage to control my fear and help if able.

I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen, neither

of them good. We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few

if any survivors, bodies, cold water, fuel. Or we could hit one of the

wings and roll and flip with the same result. I tightened my seat belt

as tight as I could possibly get it so I would remain intact.

As we came in for the landing, I looked out the windows and remember

seeing the buildings in New Jersey, the cliffs in Weehawken, and then

the piers. The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold. The

stewardesses were yelling in unison “Brace! Brace! Brace!”

It was a violent hit – the water flew up over my window – but we

bobbed up and were all amazed that we remained intact.

There was some panic – people jumping over seats and running towards

the doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down.

There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways.

Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job…they were

opened in a New York second! Everyone worked together – teamed up and

in groups to figure out how to help each other.

I exited on the starboard side of the plane, 3 or 4 rows behind my

seat through a door over the wing and was, I believe, the 10th or 12th

person out. I took my seat cushion as a flotation device and once

outside saw I was the only one who did….none of us remembered to take

the yellow inflatable life vests from under the seat.

We were standing in 6-8 inches of water and it was freezing. There

were two women on the wing, one of whom slipped off into the water.

Another passenger and I pulled her back on and had her kneel down to

keep from falling off again. By that point we were totally soaked and

absolutely frozen from the icy wind.

The ferries were the first to arrive, and although they’re not made

for rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this river, having swum

in it as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary – part salt and part fresh

water – and moves with the tide. I could tell the tide was moving out

because we were tacking slowly south towards Ellis Island, The Statue

of Liberty, and The Battery.

The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing, and the

first mate lowered the Jacobs ladder down to us. We got a couple

people up the ladder to safety, but the current was strong pushing the

stern of the boat into the inflatable slide and we were afraid it

would puncture it…there must have been 25 passengers in it by now.

Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved away.

Another ferry came up, and we were able to get the woman that had

fallen into the water on the ladder, but she just couldn’t move her

legs and fell off. Back onto the ladder she went; however, the ferry

had to back away because of the swift current. A helicopter arrived on

station (nearly blowing us all off the wing) and followed the ferry

with the woman on the ladder. We lost view of the situation but I

believe the helicopter lowered its basket to rescue her.

As more ferries arrived, we were able to get people up on the boats a

few at a time. The fellow in front of me fell off the ladder and into

the water. When we got him back on the ladder he could not move his

legs to climb. I couldn’t help him from my position so I climbed up

the ladder to the ferry deck where the first mate and I hoisted the

Jacobs ladder with him on it…when he got close enough we grabbed his

trouser belt and hauled him on deck. We were all safely off the wing.

We could not stop shaking. Uncontrollable shaking. The only thing I

had with me was my blackberry, which had gotten wet and was not

working. (It started working again a few hours later).

The ferry took us to the Weehawken Terminal in NJ where I borrowed a

phone and called my wife to let her know I was okay. The second call I

made was to Jenn. I knew she would be worried about me and could

communicate to the rest of the firm that I was fine. At the terminal,

first responders assessed everyone’s condition and sent people to the

hospital as needed. As we pulled out of Weehawken my history kicked in

and I recall it was the site of the famous duel between Alexander

Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Thankfully I left town in better

condition than Mr. Hamilton who died of a mortal wound the next day! I

stayed with my sister on Long Island that evening, then flew home the

next day.

I am struck by what was truly a miracle. Had this happened a few hours

later, it would have been pitch dark and much harder to land. Ferries

would no longer have been running after rush hour and it would not

have been the same uplifting story. Surely there would have been

fatalities, hypothermia, an absolute disaster!

I witnessed the best of humanity that day. I and everyone on that

plane survived and have been given a second chance. It struck me that

in our work we continuously seek excellence to solve our client’s

leadership problems. We talk to clients all the time about the

importance of experience and the ability to execute. Experience showed

up big time on Flight 1549 as our pilot was a dedicated, trained,

experienced professional who executed flawlessly when he had to.

I have received scores of emails from across the firm and I am so

grateful for the outpouring of interest and concern. We all fly a

great deal or work with someone who does and so I wanted to share this

story – the story of a miracle. I am thankful to be here to tell the


There is a great deal to be learned including: Why has this happened

to me? Why have I survived and what am I supposed to do with this

gift? For me, the answers to these questions and more will come over

time, but already I find myself being more patient and forgiving, less

critical and judgmental.

For now I have 4 lessons I would like to share:

1. Cherish your families as never before and go to great lengths to

keep your promises.

2. Be thankful and grateful for everything you have and don’t worry

about the things you don’t have.

3. Keep in shape. You never know when you’ll be called upon to save

your own life, or help someone else save theirs.

4. When you fly, wear practical clothing. You never know when you’ll

end up in an emergency or on an icy wing in flip flops and pajamas and

of absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else.

Thanks to all who have reached out …I look forward to seeing you soon!

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7 Responses to Remarkable passenger’s account of USAirways 1549 ditching

  1. Nicolas January 28, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    Thanks very much for posting this.

  2. Sandy Gilbert January 31, 2009 at 8:18 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story and the lessons you now carry
    with you on a daily basis.

    Last Sept I had a Horrible accident on I 24 in Nashvillle . Tn and
    I walked away from it too.
    I should be dead.

    God has been so close to me since the accident because he is the one I give the credit to for saving me.
    I even found a poem and the last lines are” NO, THAT TRAUMA YOU FACED WAS NOT EASY. AND GOD WEPT THAT IT HURT YOU SO.

  3. Kurt February 4, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    “Straight from the horse’s mouth” and we could not ask for better. From within the industry an on the spot account with plenty of lessons for us in aviation and those that fly as passengers. Thank you for your time Mr McNamara.

  4. Robin Mendelson February 6, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Thank you for your first hand account during flight 1549, your story will be invaluable in educating others on the importance of protocol during emergency situations. I am a Cub Scout Leader and I’ll be sharing this information with our troop. God Bless :)

  5. Penny Wells February 9, 2009 at 12:06 am #

    Thank you for sharing your experience, it is truly a blessing to all who will take the time to read it. I have no deoubt that God’s hand was with the pilot, the crew and all the passengers.
    Penny Wells

  6. WPRoe February 9, 2009 at 3:24 am #

    Thank you for sharing this amazing miracle. The four lessons are especially valuable and insightful. God bless.

  7. rich February 16, 2009 at 5:15 pm #

    The e-mail has some good advice and maybe it’s true. But it has more than a few inconsistencies. The ones that jump out to me:

    “I had started to point out items of interest to the
    gentleman next to me when we heard a terrible crash – a sound no one
    ever wants to hear while flying – and then the engines wound down to
    a screeching halt.”

    There’s not many points of interest between LaGuardia and the Bronx and none that I know of on the right side of the airplane. Seat 8F was looking east to Long Island, not Manhattan.

    “The ferries were the first to arrive, and although
    they’re not made for rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this
    river, having swum in it as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary – part
    salt and part fresh water – and moves with the tide. ”

    The Hudson is an estuary and the current is strong – anyone swimming in it risks being pulled out to the ocean. I’ve lived in NYC and NJ for 25 years, and I don’t know of anyone who has swam in the Hudson. It’s much better than it was, but still polluted.

    “Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm and I left the
    Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia

    Heidrick & Struggles’ (the author’s supposed employer) offices are on Sixth Avenue, not Park.

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