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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TIME SLOWS DOWN. The seconds turn to minutes and the minutes to hours. From takeoff to crash, less than six minutes pass. With the passengers on the wings and in the rafts, the first commuter ferries arrive four minutes later. Within 10 minutes, six other ferries show up. Within 25 minutes, the last passengers board the ferries.

For the families awaiting calls, time slows, too. In her living room, Martin awaits word from her niece on her sis-ter’s condition. Martin is no news junkie. She hates when the anchors repeat the same story over and over again. But today is different.

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” Martin will say later. “I wanted to hear every little detail.”

At 6:30, three hours after the crash, McHugh’s voice comes through from her hospital bed.  

“She sounded so fragile,” Martin says. “And she is usually not fragile.”

Other families find out more quickly. Minutes after the ferry’s near miss of the life raft, Mark Hood takes a panicked call from his daughter

Maggie. Steve O’Brien is in the ferry when he finally connects with Karen, who had sent their daughter to a neighbor’s house while she tried to confirm the flight number.

* * *

IT'S NOT UNTIL THE DAYS and months after the crash that the reality of what could have happened sets in for the families.

“I knew so little about what had happened,” Maggie Hood, Mark’s daughter, says later. “I really didn’t think that anything else could happen. If he said he’s fine, he’s fine.

“It wasn’t until the books came out and other things came out that I really started to understand how serious it was.”

A few small changes and the landing would have been a tragedy rather than a miracle. If the water had been three degrees colder, ice could have torn the plane to shreds. The plane landed around West 48th Street, between the piers of midtown Manhattan and the Weehawken, New Jersey ferry terminals. If it had landed a few miles north, the ferries that swarmed the crash site and brought the passengers to safety might not have arrived in time.

Some say it was the hand of God. Others say it was captain Chesley Sullenberger’s steadiness. Or maybe a combination
of both. Whatever it was, 155 people, 74 of them from the Charlotte area, lived.

“None of us are really in charge,” Hood says. “I could dwell on this forever and try to find a human reason why. I just choose not to live my life like that.”

* * *

YEARS LATER, the memories start to fade. Some things bring the them back. Loud noises. Cold water. Electrical smells. Geese honking. And there are sleepless nights and survivor’s guilt. Less than a month after the crash, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in upstate New York, killing all 49 passengers and one person on the ground. 

“You think, ‘We got to have our miracle. Why didn’t they?’ ” Beth McHugh says.

After a year in the media spotlight, life returned to normal for the most part. Hood and O’Brien still fly dozens of times each year for work. The Charlotte survivors still get together for dinners and parties at the Carolinas Aviation Museum off of the Billy Graham Parkway, where the plane now rests as an exhibit.

Maggie did wind up at NYU that fall. She’s graduated now and is pursuing an acting career. You might have seen her in episodes of The Americans or The Following. She joined her family at the first anniversary in New York. 

“All the images of the city were seared into my brain from that plane seat,” Mark Hood says. “To be able to experience those in a positive light was really cool.” O’Brien coached that game the Saturday after the crash.

It ended in a tie. 

“That was a tough game to get through,” O’Brien says. “But I think the tie was fitting.”

One year after the crash, McHugh decided to retire from her job as a technology project manager for a health-care company, a job that kept her flying back and forth from the New York area several times a year.

“I just started to think that I have so many other things I want to do rather than fly back and forth every week,” McHugh says. She still flies, but now it’s to see grandchildren or siblings. 

The most potent reminders are not the ones that bring back the fear on the plane, but the thought of what might have been.

“Vertigo moments,” Hood calls them. “Where you have to hold onto something to steady yourself.”

For Hood, it happened at his twins’ high school graduation that spring. For O’Brien it was that Christmas morning.

“You think of the world without you in it,” O’Brien says. “It’s not like everything changes and you decide to go climb Mount Everest. You still have work. You still have responsibilities. But there is definitely a before and an after.”

* * *

SOME PEOPLE keep in touch. Some are closer than others. For Denise Lockie and Mark Hood, what started as a heated exchange over politics in the second row on the LaGuardia tarmac has grown into a close friendship.

They still talk politics, and they still disagree. But now those debates take place over Thanksgiving meals at the Hoods’ home.

“She’s plum part of the family,” Hood says. 

Chuck McShane is a freelance writer in Davidson. He can be reached at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane.

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