Hudson River Plane Crash Survivor Shares Story Of Hope

OSWEGO, NY – The United Way of Greater Oswego County gathered Wednesday to thank all the volunteers who help the county “Live United.”

The annual meeting also featured an inspirational message about how teamwork can save lives.

Dave Sanderson, delivers his message of teamwork and hope at Wednesday's annual meeting of the United Way.
Dave Sanderson, delivers his message of teamwork and hope at Wednesday's annual meeting of the United Way.

“Live United” is more than a slogan, “it’s a call to action,” said out-going board president John Scardella. “It is reaching out to our neighbors in need, and creating better life opportunities for all.”

The United Way owes the community a great debt of gratitude for its outstanding support of the annual campaign.

Currently, they stand at 85 percent of the $880,000 goal.

He recognized the vital part volunteers play in making the United Way successful in assisting its many member agencies.

Jonathan Daniels, campaign chair for 2009, echoed those sentiments.

He compared the campaign to a painting where each donation was a brush stroke and those who facilitated the campaign areas were compared to the greatest artists of all time.

“The citizens of Oswego County are truly a group that understands what it means to give, advocate, volunteer and live united,” he said.

The United Way provides “a light even in the darkest of times,” said Melanie Trexler, executive director.

The guest speaker, Dave Sanderson, 48, a sales manager from Charlotte, N.C., crystallized the need for agencies such as the United Way and Red Cross – and especially volunteers.

Sanderson boarded US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 19, 2009, for what he thought was a routine flight.

Within minutes, however, it turned into what has become known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.”

The plane made an emergency landing in the river. All 155 people on the plane survived.

Four things contributed to the outcome that day: teamwork, leadership, resourcefulness and the power of faith, he told the large crowd at The American Foundry.

From the time the plane took off, crashed and Sanderson was back on dry land was about 20 minutes, he said.

He actually was scheduled to be on a later flight, but now admits, “I was supposed to be on that flight for a reason.”

He said he went to his seat and read a magazine.

“I did not listen to the flight crew. I did not know where the exit doors were. I did not read that brochure. But I do every time now,” he said.

Less than a minute after the plane took off, he heard an explosion.

“The guy next to me asked me what was going on. I told him ‘I think we just lost an engine,'” he said.

As the situation continued to develop, no one spoke.

The captain banked the plane across the George Washington Bridge. He is a certified glider pilot and had to apply that skill right then, Sanderson said.

“Then, (the captain) said the only words he had to say. He said, ‘Brace for impact,'” he said. “That’s when we all knew it was pretty serious.”

The captain set the aircraft down just right; it didn’t roll over on either side and it didn’t nosedive to the bottom of the river, Sanderson said.

He first felt the water on his feet moments after the plane hit the icy Hudson River. Within minutes, the frigid water rose from his ankles to knees.

Seated four rows behind one of the plane’s wings, Sanderson was among the last passengers to exit the sinking aircraft.

“I didn’t have any feeling in the lower half of my body because I was waist deep in water for seven or eight minutes,” he said Wednesday. “I never got on the wing. I never got in a lifeboat.”

When the plane crashed, all the seats collapsed. Passengers were able to walk on the seats to get to the exits.

He said he remembered his late mother telling him, “Do the right thing and God will take care of you.”

“I wasn’t intending to be the last guy out of the plane,” he said. “But I waited a few seconds for the women and children in the back.”

Passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 stand on the wings as they try to get off the sinking plane in this AP photograph.
Passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 stand on the wings as they try to get off the sinking plane in this AP photograph.

When he tried to get off the plane, there was no room on the wing for him and the lifeboat was “all full up,” he noted. He remained waist-deep in 36-degree water for about eight minutes.

Sanderson clung to the plane with one arm and held onto the plane’s lifeboat with his other arm. Then, a tugboat bumped the aircraft and Sanderson felt cold water wash up his back.

He said that he thought about the Titanic, “I felt the water go over my head and thought, ‘I am going down with this plane,’ and I started to swim.”

Sanderson swam eight or nine strokes to a ferry, and was pulled from the water.

“Thank God my mom and dad gave me swimming lessons,” he said. “If they hadn’t given me swimming lessons, I wouldn’t have gotten off that plane.”

He spent a night thawing out in Palisades Medical Center, North Bergen, N.J.

The real heroes that day were the first responders, and New York Waterways, was the first group to arrive – in less than two minutes and the American Red Cross was there within 10 minutes, Sanderson said.

“One of the biggest lessons about this whole thing is teamwork,” he said.

He encouraged a woman standing on the wing to pass her infant to another woman in the lifeboat so they all could get in safely.

“It took a lot of faith for her to give her baby up to somebody she didn’t even know,” he said.

When Sanderson arrived at a dock in New Jersey, emergency medical technicians and a Red Cross worker carried him to a triage room and removed his wet clothes.

After checking his blood pressure, it was 190/120, he was at risk of a heart attack or stroke. They rushed him to Palisades Medical Center. Ten women picked him up and carried him to the first emergency room that they had, he said.

After surviving the landing, Sanderson said he didn’t want to die of a heart attack or stroke.

“God was throwing me fastballs, but there were people taking care of me,” he said. “My (core) temperature was 94. I had a lot of issues going on. It took them five hours to thaw me out. I couldn’t do anything.”

He was one of just six people who were hospitalized following the crash; and, he was one of the two that spent the night.

“That’s a miracle that no one was injured,” he said.

That night, a Red Cross worker brought him “some ugly sweats and ugly (tennis) shoes,” Sanderson said.

“I ask you to support the Red Cross and the United Way, I know the importance of what they do,” Sanderson said. “One hundred and fifty-five people who did not know each other, pulled together as a team and pulled off something that’s never been pulled off in the history of aviation, a successful water landing where no one got injured. Everybody checked their egos at the door.”

He now has a reference point in his life that proves as a team you can do anything, he said.

“The United Way, the Red Cross work together as a team – look at what they can pull off,” he said.

Sanderson still flies about 100,000 miles per year on business trips.

He accepts no fee for speaking on behalf of the American Red Cross. “I have a job that pays my bills. But I have a mission; to share what happened that day. This story is about hope. And that is the mission of the Red Cross and the mission of the United Way.”

Sanderson is one of 25 passengers and first responders who have shared their inspiring stories of life after “the miracle on the Hudson” in the book: “Brace for Impact.”

For more information or to make donations, call 593-1900.