Flight 1549: the Right Stuff
The emotions came over her so suddenly, she didn’t know what hit her. Attending a performance of South Pacific in New York City on Feb. 7, Lorrie Sullenberger stood by as her husband, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III was introduced to the audience. “There was this roar from the crowd—he got a standing ovation—and I just burst out sobbing,” says Lorrie, 50, who was at the theater with the couple’s two daughters, Kate, 16, and Kelly, 14. “There was no controlling it,” she says. “I don’t even know what the tears were for. Some of it is gratitude; some of it is fear. Some of it is for when someone goes for a big hug and tells him he’s their hero.”
Then again, almost everything about US Airways Flight 1549 and the near-miraculous landing on the Hudson River defies rational explanation. How all 155 passengers and crew could get out of that plane alive is a mystery that all the participants—not just the passengers, but the crew and even the heroic Sully himself—are still wrestling with weeks later. Family and friends want to help them get past the Jan. 15 accident. But many simply can’t—and don’t yet want to. Perhaps no one has felt the pull and tug of conflicting emotions more acutely than Sullenberger, 58, who instantly, if reluctantly, became a national icon. “At first it was very hard to accept,” he says. “It took a crew of five to accomplish this, and we were doing the job we were trained for. At the same time I don’t want to diminish people’s gift of thanks to me.”
If it’s possible to call a pilot uncommonly grounded, that certainly describes Sullenberger, who has handled the postcrash hoopla with the same sangfroid he displayed that icy day on the Hudson near midtown Manhattan (for a description of how he got that plane down, see box, p. 64). Passenger Steve O’Brien recalls seeing Sullenberger sitting in one of the life rafts, as calm and unruffled as could be. “He was so in control, I thought he was a rescuer,” says O’Brien, 45. “He had a little clipboard under his arm, and he said, ‘I need a count here of how many people.'” There have been the innumerable interview requests, a trip to the Super Bowl and even a Facebook fan site that already has more than half a million members. “I haven’t seen it,” he chuckles. “My daughters told me about it.”
Perhaps the highlight, though, was the visit to Washington for the Inauguration, where he met President Barack Obama. The new President joked to Lorrie, “You’re not going to let this go to his head, are you?” Lorrie replied, “‘I’ve been telling people he still snores.’ And the President started laughing and said, ‘You have to tell my wife'”—making it clear that the First Couple have grappled with the same issue. “We all got a good laugh out of that.”
Sullenberger says he wants to resume piloting. He acknowledges, though, that he has been plagued by some symptoms of posttraumatic stress. For the first couple of weeks after the crash, he had flashbacks and even wondered—incredibly—if he could have done anything better that day. “It’s hard to shut your brain off,” he says. “It’s gotten much better, but at first I thought about the what-ifs.” All the same, he says he still isn’t sleeping well: “And I’ve always been a good sleeper.”
As for the rest of the crew, the aftermath has brought a wide range of reactions. First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, 49, who was at the controls when the birds hit the engines, didn’t sleep for the first three days after the accident, but since then he has had no problems at night. On a recent trip to New York as a passenger he rode in the cockpit on a jump seat without a second thought. “Didn’t really bother me at all,” he says. “I’ll be able to go back to flying, no problem.” Likewise, Donna Dent, 51, who was the lead flight attendant, admits to having some “moments” over the past couple of weeks but is itching to get back on regular duty. “Being a flight attendant isn’t just what I do,” she says. “It’s who I am.”
On the other hand, Sheila Dail, 57, who was working in the first-class cabin with Dent, recalls attending the Inauguration five days after the crash and sitting on the podium with all the dignitaries and saying to herself, “I can’t handle this.” Two days later she had a panic attack in which she experienced chest pains. She has been seeing a therapist to deal with sleeplessness and forgetfulness associated with posttraumatic stress, though she expects to resume her job. The same can’t be said of her colleague Doreen Welsh, 58, who suffered a deep leg wound and was hospitalized for two days. When Sullenberger announced, “Brace for impact!” Welsh immediately feared the worst. “I was terrified for my soul,” she says. “You knew you were going to crash.” She was in the rear of the plane, which quickly began filling with water after a passenger opened the tail door. At one point the water was up to her neck. “I was two seconds from drowning,” she says. “The first few nights in the hospital I had water dreams about drowning in the galley on the plane.” She says she still has constant anxiety: “My insides have not stopped shaking.”
Contrast that with passenger Andrew Gray, 28, a former Army Airborne captain who did two tours in Afghanistan and was on the plane with his fiancée, Stephanie King, 29. Gray says he has sought out videos and everything else he can find about the crash in an effort to “fully understand what happened.” Which is not to say he was unmoved by his experience. “I can’t think of anything more strengthening for a couple,” he says, “than accepting death together—and then 30 seconds later realizing you made it out alive!” By the same token, Maryann Bruce, 48, the president of an investment firm from Cornelius, N.C., says she’s heard from friends who have been out of touch for 20 years. “It’s as if I went to my own funeral and didn’t have to die to go,” she says. “There’s been such an outpouring of love.”
Many passengers, not surprisingly, have found renewed faith. “The words ‘Brace for impact’ are repeated in my head over and over,” says Amy Jolly, 29, a clothing-store buyer who lives in Gaffney, S.C. “I thought it meant brace for my last seconds on earth. I realize now it meant so much more. It meant brace for something that would change my life. Brace for an absolute miracle.” For other passengers, however, the lingering effects of the crash are unpredictable—and troubling. (Most of the 28 passengers contacted by PEOPLE, however, scoffed at the notion of filing a lawsuit against US Airways.) Joe Hart, 50, also from Cornelius, who works in sales for another investment firm and has flown 11 times since Jan. 15, found that he had no big problem getting on a plane right after the crash but, curiously enough, has seen his anxiety go way up since then. “Each flight is getting more stressful,” he says. “It starts with an adrenaline rush. Your heart skips a beat. Then you start thinking, ‘Was that a normal sound or was it another bird going through the engine?’ I hope it will pass.”
Though many passengers have received professional counseling, more than a few feel that talking to each other is a vital part of their recovery. Josh Peltz, 39, who works for a software firm in Charlotte, N.C., started an e-mail chain of 32 survivors that serves as a support group. Hearing that others were also experiencing aftershocks, says Peltz, “made me feel better.” Passenger Pam Seagle, 42, who works for Bank of America, has found great comfort in bonding with other survivors. “My husband is wonderful and supportive, but nobody else completely understands,” she says. “We tend to dwell on it. The family members are like, ‘You have to move on.'” On a recent visit to New York, Seagle felt the need to call Steve O’Brien, who spent several minutes in the water with her before they were rescued by a ferry and with whom she had already spoken by phone several times. “I skipped going out to dinner with some coworkers,” she says. “I had to talk to Steve.”
Nevertheless memories of the crash come racing back to her at the most unexpected moments. Recently she went to the beach in North Carolina with her husband, Todd, and parents—and found herself terrified. “I got to the water’s edge, and I physically froze,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be scared of that water. I think it will be a while before I can walk beside water when it’s cold.” She says one of the things that has helped enormously was meeting Sullenberger in person and having a chance to thank him. “He is so humble and kind,” she says. “I felt comforted being around him.”
Fortunately Sullenberger seems built to bear the weight of others’ expectations of him. He wanted to be a pilot since he was 5 years old. He and Lorrie, who live in Danville, Calif., have been married for nearly 20 years and theirs seems to be an unusually warm union. They met when they happened to work together at an aviation event and he asked her out. Lorrie, who does fitness segments for the ABC station in San Francisco, tells the story of how several years ago, when she was heavier, she mentioned to her husband how he never complained about her looks. Recalls Lorrie: “And he said, ‘You don’t get it, do you? I love you for who you are.’ It took me aback. It’s what every woman wants to hear.” Though he is gone as many as 18 days a month, when he’s home he’s a full-on dad, helping the girls with math homework, taking his turn carpooling and doing school meetings. In their spare time he and Lorrie spend time in Tahoe, go running and, as if they aren’t perfect enough, are active in a dog-rescue organization and also foster kittens.
For the time being the Sullenbergers are struggling to keep up with the flood of fan mail. The letters, thousands of them so far, often bring Sully and his wife to tears. Their favorite: one from the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Says Lorrie: “She said when you save a life, you never know what that person is going to do.” So maybe it was something like fate that put Sully Sullenberger in the cockpit of that plane on that day. Whatever it was, no one is done giving thanks.
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