Thursday, January 15, 2009

There But for the Grace of God Went He

By now, I'm sure you've read the story of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson River near New York City this afternoon--a story that could have been a disaster, but everyone got out alive, thanks to the quick actions of the flight crew, among others.

I didn't expect this when the story first broke this afternoon, but there's a small personal angle as well.

Here's a little backstory: My buddy Aaron went to New York last week (where, as I mentioned on Monday, he got to see an amazing Dave Holland show at Birdland to ring in his birthday). I knew that he flew back yesterday and that he'd gotten back pretty late. When we talked this afternoon, he had mentioned a layover in Charlotte, and he noted that he'd ridden on a variety of aircraft during the three or so legs of his flight, but I had no idea which airline he'd flown.

I didn't think too much about any of that until about half an hour later, when I was in the waiting room at the car place getting my oil changed. Fox News was on the TV, and the top story of the day was suddenly interrupted by news of the crash. All of us in the waiting room put down our reading materials and were pretty much riveted to the TV at that point.

As the details started to come together, I heard that the flight was bound for Charlotte, and I got to thinking about my recent conversation with Aaron. And then I got another phone call, where all he had to say was, "Dude..." and I knew exactly what he was going to say next. (Quite a few years ago, I briefly discussed an article in which linguist did a deconstruction of the word "dude," and happily, it's still out there. That one word has so many meanings, and they vary depending on how it's said.)

My reply was, "You're watching the news, aren't you?" He answered in the positive, and then I asked him if the flight that crashed today was the same one that he took yesterday. He concurred again, and would later tell me that he and his girlfriend had even joked about him staying a day longer. Count me among those who are glad that didn't really happen.

But beyond the personal angle, one of the amazing things about this story is how everyone worked so well together--the flight crew, the crews and passengers of the various nearby ferries, the Coast Guard, the NYC Police and countless others. Government and private entities all worked together in near-perfect harmony, so it would seem; the "first responders" were passengers on one of the numerous commuter ferries that cross back and forth between New Jersey and Manhattan every day. One ferry passenger, David Watta, quoted on a New York Times blog post, said that everyone on the ferry rushed to the passengers' aid:
“We were holding people, hugging them, reassuring them, holding their hands, warming them with our body heat,” he said.

“We provided cell phones so they could call loved ones. A lot of them were so cold that they couldn’t dial, so we dialed for them. I would say that everyone on the ferry were heroes for the day. They were all civilians who stepped up in a time of need to help their fellow citizens.”
And the pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III (what a great name!) is certainly deserving of the term "hero," not only because he managed to avoid the heavily-populated areas on all sides of him, but for orchestrating as smooth a landing as possible on a far-less-than-ideal "runway." (UPDATE: He's originally from Texas.)

This could have been a total disaster, but, thanks to a little luck, a lot of skill, and, yes, the Hand of God, such a thing was averted. New York has been through a lot in the past decade, so I'm glad this had as happy of an ending as possible. And no matter what had happened, I'm really glad that Aaron wasn't on that plane.

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