A year after the miracle, a toast on the Hudson
Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 2:03 a.m.
NEW YORK — Crying, cheering and embracing, the survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 raised a toast to life Friday, marking the anniversary of their harrowing water landing with a return to the place their crippled jet hit the Hudson River.
Hollering, they raised their glasses at 3:31 p.m., the moment of impact, on one of the ferries that plucked them shivering from the water just minutes after they splashed down. With the sun gleaming on the Hudson and festive sprays of colorful water shooting into the sky behind them, they made the toast at the approximate place where the plane went down after a half-day of gatherings to mark their miraculous survival.
In the extra year that no one expected they would have, the survivors have been coping with the trauma of their terrifying crash, but also discovering new gifts. One passenger, Jennifer Doyle, is pregnant. Karin Hill became Karin Hill Rooney when she married her boyfriend, who was sitting next to her as the plane went down. Another two, Ben Bostic and Laura Zych, strangers at the time of the crash, have fallen in love and begun dating.
The year has also been a difficult one. Ann Oblak, who saw her 73rd birthday after surviving the crash, still sometimes has dreams of being on the plummeting plane. She and her husband took a train from their home in Lancaster, S.C., to reunite with the other passengers. The Croatia native has yet to get on a plane again, and she's been too afraid to get on a boat and return to the water.
Still, they were determined to join in Friday's celebration, she said, to see the other passengers again.
At the ferry terminal, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was mobbed by well-wishers. Passengers ran to get their cameras and pose with the man who was so instrumental in saving their lives — a celebrity even among this group of celebrities.
Among the group was Hannah Acton, whose husband, Patrick, was on the flight.
"Thank you so much," she told the pilot, tears welling behind her thick-rimmed glasses, clutching a copy of his book to her chest.
Later, she recalled the dread she felt after getting a call that her husband's plane had gone down, then not knowing for 23 minutes whether he was dead or alive as she watched the rescue on television.
"I was hysterical," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, now I'm watching my husband die.'"
The plane's entire crew was present. Co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles was there, as were flight attendants Doreen Welsh, Donna Dent and Sheila Dail.
Welsh had been nervous as the anniversary approached. After nearly drowning as the river filled the back of the plane, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder and a fear of water. Returning to the Hudson for the ferry ride was scary.
After the toast, she sat on a bench and found herself in tears. But after all that fear, she was crying for a different reason.
"How lucky we all are. How lucky we are to be here," she said.
For the toast, one passenger provided champagne. Another arranged for Grey Goose vodka to donate some bottles of liquor, said Pat Smith, a spokesman for NY Waterway, the employer of ferry crews that rescued many of the 155 people aboard. It was apparently a wry nod to the flock of geese that disabled the engines of the Airbus A320.
Smith said that some passengers had approached NY Waterway to ask their help in arranging the on-the-water celebration. The ferry company donated the use of their terminal and boats for the event.
The gathering allowed one woman to return the jacket that ferry Capt. Vince Lucante had given her and another passenger off his back. The two drenched women had sat, huddled together and shivering on the ferry, with their feet dug into the sleeves of his jacket.
In a strange anniversary coincidence, the pilot of a two-seater plane heading toward the river to fly a banner marking the anniversary instead had to make an emergency landing at the former Fresh Kills landfill. The pilot was uninjured, police said.
Earlier in the day, the group gathered for a breakfast to thank first responders. Skiles called all the rescuers, from the fire and police departments to ferry and boat operators, "the true heroes of that day."
Skiles then made a $5,000 donation to the American Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. He made the gift in the name of the victims of the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., last February.
Passenger after passenger said how glad they were to be back with people who they've come to consider closer than relatives.
"We're a family," said Vallie Collins. "There's some connection I have with these 154 that's kind of hard to explain."
"They know what it felt like," she said. "We were all on our own odyssey, but we each went through the same thing."
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