DIANE HIGGINS (seat 17E), 58, traveled with mother Lucille Palmer, 85, both of Goshen, N.Y.: We were only in the air about a minute when we heard this big boom.
MARYANN BRUCE (seat 5D), 48, of Cornelius, N.C.: When I heard the boom I knew, based on where we were, we’d hit birds. It happened to me before, but that plane kept flying.
SCOTT SHARKEY (seat 19C), 32, of Waxhaw, N.C.: A man in front of me said the engine’s on fire. Black smoke started to filter into the cabin.
ROBERT KOLODJAY (seat 6C), 59, traveled with nephew Jim Stefanik, 30, both of Chicopee, Mass.: I could feel the plane turning and banking. My nephew looked at me and said, “Uncle Rob, this doesn’t look good.” I said, “Jimmy, say your prayers and I love you.”
DAVE SANDERSON (seat 15A), 47, of Charlotte, N.C.: The pilot said, “Brace for impact.” He wasn’t yelling. It was a command. He was in control.
ARMY CAPTAIN ANDREW GRAY (seat 14F), 28, of Fayetteville, N.C., traveled with fiancée Stephanie King, 29, of West Bend, Wisc.: I turned to Stephanie and kissed her and told her I loved her. And we started to pray that we would be able to get out of it alive. You could hear the murmurs of people saying their last rites. Some people were making phone calls or texting. Nobody was screaming. In fact, the plane was eerily quiet.
JOE HART (seat 7B), 50, of Cornelius, N.C.: What goes through your head is almost like in the movies: “Oh my God, are my kids going to be okay? Did I pay the insurance bill this month?” Then I got my wits about me. I thought, “I had a good life. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
BARRY LEONARD (seat 1C), 55, of Charlotte, N.C.: When the plane hit the water it was such a jolt I honestly don’t know how it held together. I took off my seat belt and the first thing [I did was] remember that scene from Ghost—when Patrick Swayze runs away and comes back and sees himself dead—and I kind of looked back to make sure that wasn’t the case. I know that sounds weird, but you don’t know what’s happened here.
GRAY: Stephanie was kind of shaken up. I was behind her the whole time, and I guided her out onto the right wing. It wasn’t chaotic; I think people were in such shock that they were still alive.
SANDERSON: It was controlled chaos.
While flight attendants were yelling for passengers to leave their belongings and get off the plane, one woman was trying to get her purse and suitcase.
SANDERSON: Another gentleman and myself were at an exit door and kept yelling at her to get off the plane. The other guy was screaming, “Get on the lifeboat!” She wouldn’t listen; she had to have her purse and her bag. We got her on the wing and she slipped and her suitcase and purse went in the river. I grabbed her purse and threw it in the lifeboat.
JERRY SHANKO (seat 18C), 31, of Matthews, N.C.: I heard someone behind me handing out life jackets. I got back on the plane and the captain and I started grabbing life jackets and throwing them outside. And as many as we threw, they asked for more.
As rescue boats rushed to the scene, Diane Higgins and her mother—with assistance from a man whose name she still doesn’t know—made it to the front of the plane and onto a raft.
HIGGINS: The woman right in front of me was the stewardess [Doreen Welsh, 58] with the lower-leg injury— this big, gaping gash that was bleeding. And there happened to be a doctor, and I’m a nurse. We put a tourniquet around her upper leg and tried to prevent her from going into shock.
A flight attendant told Barry Leonard to jump into the water, and he started swimming toward the New York shore. But the water was so cold he quickly realized he’d never make it.
LEONARD: I turned around and swam back, and the raft was fully inflated. I was pulled onto the raft and I was uncontrollably shaking. The copilot [Jeffrey Skiles, 49] of the plane said, “Sir, you have to get out of these clothes and you have to do it now.” He gave me his pilot’s shirt and said, “I’m gonna put my arm around you and you put your arm around me; get close to me so we can all get warm.”
SHANKO: My wife and I are expecting our first child in the spring. I would love to meet the pilot and shake his hand and thank him that I still have the chance to see my baby.
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