NEW YORK — After a stricken US Airways jet made an extraordinary emergency landing in the Hudson River on Thursday, a flotilla of commuter ferries, water taxis and other boats plucked all 155 passengers and crew -- many shivering as they stood on the plane's wings -- to safety in as little as five minutes.
It was the charmed culmination to what could have been a tragic flight after the Airbus A320 lost power over New York and glided into the icy river.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, January 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Plane's emergency landing: In Friday's Section A, an article about the US Airways jet that went down in New York's Hudson River misquoted witness Patrick Wilder as saying he "saw the splash." Wilder said he did not see the splash. The article also mischaracterized a 1982 Air Florida crash into a bridge over Washington's Potomac River, calling it the United States' "best-known attempt at a river landing." The jetliner hit the bridge during takeoff.
"I believe we've had a miracle on the Hudson," Gov. David Paterson said of the landing, executed by a veteran pilot who runs a safety consulting business on the side.
US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when federal officials said it might have flown through a large flock of Canada geese, sucking some into its engines. As it dipped down near the George Washington Bridge and skimmed south along the edge of Upper Manhattan, scores of people watched in horror from nearby high-rises.
"It completely just hit the water full-force, never bounced or anything like that, and came to a relatively quick stop," said Robin Roberts of "Good Morning America," who saw the plane's crash landing from her apartment window and described it for ABC News. "But it never -- it didn't skim along the water. There was very little trauma to the aircraft. . . . [I] still can't believe what I saw."
Once in the water, not far from the mooring of a retired aircraft carrier, the Intrepid, the plane remained intact, enabling passengers to walk out onto its wings, from which most were rescued. Some had to plunge briefly into the river -- where the water was in the high 30s -- before they could be pulled to safety. The air temperature hovered around 20.
"I've never seen anybody shake like that," said Cosmo Mezzina, a crew member on the Gov. Thomas H. Kean commuter ferry, recalling one young man he helped rescue. Mezzina said he took off his own coat and draped it over the shivering man.
One passenger was hospitalized with two broken legs, the Associated Press reported, but no other serious injuries were reported.
Although passengers aboard every U.S. passenger flight are given routine instructions for what to do in an emergency water landing, such events are rare -- and rarely successful. The best-known attempt at a river landing in the United States was in January 1982, when an Air Florida jetliner slammed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River in Washington. Five of the 79 people on board survived.
The pilot in Thursday's landing was Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, a former fighter pilot from Danville, Calif., with more than 40 years of flying experience. He founded Safety Reliability Methods Inc. to apply advances in safety systems, some of them based on "studies of high-risk, high-performance environments such as aircraft carrier flight deck operations," its website says.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the pilot had done "a wonderful job."
"It's not the way people normally arrive in New York City," added Bloomberg, "but as long as they all got out safely, everything else is secondary."
Bloomberg said he had spoken to Sullenberger, who also spoke to investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board but made no public statements. Bloomberg said Sullenberger described walking up and down the plane to make sure all passengers had been evacuated before he abandoned it.
Though the landing and subsequent rescue clearly relied on skill, they also had the advantage of luck. The landing occurred shortly before 3:30 p.m., just as ferries on both sides of the Hudson were "crewing up" for the afternoon rush hour. That allowed them to get to the plane almost instantly. At the same time, the river -- one of the world's busiest waterways, frequently plied by ferries, barges, tankers and cruise ships -- was apparently clear enough of shipping traffic to allow the plane to set down without hitting anything.
The Airbus A320 left LaGuardia at 3:26 p.m. After takeoff, it banked left and headed west toward the Hudson.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration has cautioned that the cause of the accident remains under investigation, one theory that quickly emerged was that the plane had encountered a large flock of geese. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters told him it appeared that Canada geese, which migrate through the New York area, might have knocked out both engines.
Rory Kay, an active airline pilot who is executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Assn. International, said that what pilots called "bird ingestion" could cause at least partial engine failure. If birds are sucked into just one engine, Kay said, a pilot usually can make it to the nearest airfield or airport.
"As long as you've got that remaining engine available to you, you hold quite a few aces up your sleeve," he said. "When both are taken away from you, you've got to make some rapid decisions."