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
LOGAN CYRUS
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.

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.”

 

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.

Categories: By Chuck McShane, Feature, The Buzz