Charlotteans Recount 'The Miracle on the Hudson'

Our strongest connection with New York was once our shared pain from the banking collapse. But on a cold afternoon in January 2009, an airplane that took off from LaGuardia hit a flock of geese, and landed in the Hudson River


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From left: Mark Hood, Beth McHugh, Denise Lockie, and Steve O’Brien were among the 74 Charlotte area residents who survived the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which later became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

LOGAN CYRUS

(page 1 of 2)

THE 2:45 THURSDAY AFTERNOON FLIGHT from New York to Charlotte is all business.

Project managers and retail buyers heading home for a long weekend. Sales reps off to the next city. Most of them seasoned flyers. They know the drill—shoes off, bags checked, arms up for the TSA wand.

The second week of January 2009 isn’t a great week for business—especially for the 23 passengers working on the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch merger. It’s not good for anyone in banking. Or anyone who uses a bank. Many flyers are on edge boarding the almost full plane. Tired bodies with frayed nerves bump into each other; their bulky overcoats and briefcases make boarding more cumbersome. Adding to the annoyance, congestion on the runways has pushed takeoff 40 minutes behind.

Up in first class, Mark Hood and Denise Lockie make awkward small talk. It’s a pleasant enough conversation, until politics comes up.  

“It became painfully obvious we had nothing in common,” Hood says.

Nothing except this flight.    

* * *

HALFWAY BACK IN THE PLANE, in seat 15C, Steve O’Brien shakes off the bitter cold and the week’s work. He runs through the lineup of his 10-year-old son’s basketball game, which he’s scheduled to coach that Saturday, and dozes off while thinking of who’ll play where.

Fewer than two minutes after takeoff and 3,000 feet above the Bronx, O’Brien wakes up with a jolt. 

Boom. The sound of the plane hitting a flock of geese. Then thwoop as the force of the engines sucks the geese through, their bodies destroying the fans and damaging the core. The plane shakes as the cabin fills with a light haze and the smell of burning wires. 

A woman near the middle of the plane lets out a scream. But the frequent flyers are more annoyed than scared. They’ve seen this before, they think. Now it’s back to LaGuardia to switch planes. What a hassle. The plane drifts a few hundred feet higher, then banks hard left and starts descending.

It’s not until they glide over the steel towers of the George Washington Bridge that the terror sets in. The plane is 900 feet above the bridge’s highest spires, but it feels much closer to those on the left side. Passengers in window seats can see inside the cars below, sitting in gridlocked traffic. Lower now, over Harlem, they can see the building’s rooftops above them.   

A steady voice comes over the intercom: This is your captain. Brace for impact.

There’s weeping. There’s praying. There’s cursing. But mostly, there’s the strange silence of gliding with no engines. The real noise now is in each passenger’s head. 

O’Brien thinks about the basketball game and everything else—the games and the graduations, the wakes and the weddings—he won’t be around for any of them. Sadness and anger and regrets, from the mundane to the profound, rush through his mind. Who’s going to clean the garage now? How are the kids going to cope without a father?

“It’s amazing what can go through your mind in such a short time,” O’Brien will say later.

O’Brien pulls out his Blackberry and thinks of dialing home but stops himself, remembering the panicked messages he’d heard on the news from those stuck in the Twin Towers or Flight 93 on 9-11. He doesn’t want to leave his family with that. He looks up, breaking the flight attendants’ commands to catch a glimpse of the New Jersey tree line and the sun’s bright shimmer off the water. 

“I wanted to see the sun,” O’Brien says, “I wanted to see life, the earth. Until I couldn’t see it anymore.”

The flight attendants repeat their refrain: Heads down! Stay down! Brace! Brace! 

* * *

BACK HOME IN SOUTH CHARLOTTE, Karen O’Brien packs bathing suits and shorts. She and her eight-year-old daughter Meghan think of warm water as they get ready for a mother-daughter cruise with some friends.

The phone rings. It’s one of Steve’s friends from New York.

Is Steve there?

“No,” Karen says.

Is he flying home today?

“Yes.”

I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but …

A few miles away, Mark Hood’s daughter, Maggie, leaves Charlotte Christian School. Driving home after a long day of classes, she stops to pick up some clothes at an alterations store. When she walks in the door, it takes longer than usual for someone to come to the counter.

The owner comes out and apologizes. There was breaking news on the television in back. Had she heard about the plane crash in New York?

“Oh no, that’s terrible,” Maggie says, taking her clothes to leave.

Getting back to the car, the news is on the radio. It’s a Charlotte-bound plane leaving from LaGuardia.       

Wait, she thinks. Is Dad coming home today or tomorrow?

* * *

HEADS DOWN! Stay down! Brace! Brace!

Five minutes after takeoff, Flight 1549 is gliding fewer than 100 feet from the river’s surface. Mark Hood grabs Lockie’s hand. No more politics now, just prayers. Hood prays for his wife and his son. And he prays that his daughter Maggie will stick with her plan of attending New York University and not associate the city with his death. He asks God: Why now, on this routine business trip? Why not years before when he was a Marine in Iraq or Liberia? He prays, too, in a way only a Marine might, to have the strength to not do anything dishonorable. “To have a good death,” as he puts it.

The plane skids and bounces a few times before twisting and coming to a stop on the water. Jet fuel leaks from the severed left engine. Hood and Lockie head straight for the front doors and the life raft, which has deployed on the left-front side of the plane. The harsh chill of the 22-degree air and 35-degree water don’t register over the adrenaline. Water rushes up from a breach in the back of the plane. Several coach passengers scramble to open the middle emergency doors. Some dive into the river. Hood lifts one swimmer into the raft and sees another, a tall man in an overcoat. It’s O’Brien. He’s swimming toward Manhattan.

“You’re not going to make it,” Hood says, convincing O’Brien to head back for the raft, where Hood and Lockie pull him in.

In the life raft, Hood tries to dial his wife but the cold has his fingers locked. He taps the “last dialed” button on his phone and gets a co-worker. A minute later, he’s on the phone with his wife. As they’re talking, one of the rescue ferries hits his raft. The passengers scream and shout trying to get the ferry to steer clear. The call cuts out.

“To this day, she says she thought that was the last time she was going to speak to me,” Hood says now.      

Back in row 20, Beth McHugh feels the sting of cold water at her feet. The cold wakes her from the nightmare of dying on impact. But now the possibility of drowning, a lifelong fear, brings a second terror. The back of the plane is sinking faster now, and the water rushes in through the floorboards. By the time she’s out of her seat, the water is up to her hips. The wings are full when she gets to the middle exits, so she pushes her way to the life rafts at the front. Her phone, lost in the commotion, sinks.

Margaret Martin, McHugh’s sister, is running errands when the phone rings. A school nurse in Rock Hill, Martin is picking up CPR mannequins for a Friday morning class. In the parking lot, she hears about a plane crash on the news. After talking to her husband and niece, they determine that McHugh is on that plane.

“There’s that feeling of your heart sinking,” Martin says.

Martin calls her principal to let her know she might not be at work tomorrow. She hears about the people on the wings and in the rafts. She hears about the ferries. But no word yet on survivors. She calls McHugh’s cell phone over and over again just to hear her voicemail message. About 10 minutes into the drive, her phone rings.

Margaret, her principal says. Everyone survived.

Martin remembers little about the drive home. She starts calling her 11 other siblings to let them know. At home, the television is on and the news cameras are focused on the swarm of ferries and the crowded wings.

She walks up to the screen and touches its warm glow. She moves her hand from the image of the wings to the lifeboats and the ferries. “Like the TV would find her for me.”

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