Saturday, January 17, 2009

HEROISM WITH MALAYSIAKINI: being miraculous over New York

Crash cause unclear,
but not pilot's heroism

International Herald Tribune

The plane, an Airbus 320, was towed down the Hudson to a docking site.(Michael Appleton/The New York Times)

What might have been a catastrophe in New York was averted by a pilot's quick thinking and deft maneuvers, and by the nearness of rescue boats, a combination that witnesses and officials called miraculous.

A US Airways jetliner with 155 people aboard lost power in both engines, possibly from striking birds, after taking off from La Guardia Airport on Thursday. The pilot ditched in the icy Hudson River and all on board were rescued by a flotilla of converging ferries and emergency boats, the authorities said.

As stunned witnesses watched from high-rise buildings on both banks, the Airbus A320, which had risen to 3,200 feet, or 975 meters, over the Bronx and banked left, came downriver, its fuselage lower than many apartment terraces and windows, in a carefully executed touchdown that sent up huge plumes of water at midstream.

On Friday, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the accident, Kathryn Higgins, said the left engine was missing from the plane. Higgins said it was not clear if the right engine was still on the wing either, because it is submerged. Engines mounted under the wings, as on the A320, commonly detach in crashes.

Investigators want the engine to look for signs of damage from birds, which could have been the cause of the accident. They will also examine the airframe itself for signs of bird strikes.

The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger 3rd, unable to get back to La Guardia, had made a decision to avoid densely populated areas and try for the Hudson and had warned the 150 passengers to brace for a hard landing. Most had their heads down as the jetliner slammed into the water, nose slightly up, just three minutes after takeoff on what was to be a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Moments later, terrified passengers began swarming out the emergency exits into brutally cold air and onto the submerged wings of the bobbing jetliner, which began taking in water. When all were out, the pilot walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure the plane was empty, officials said.

Brought ashore on both sides of the river, the survivors were taken to hospitals, mostly for treatment for exposure to the brutal cold: 18 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 7.8 degrees Celsius, in the air, and about 35 degrees in the water that many had stood in on the wings up to their waists.

Sullenberger, widely praised for his heroism, was unavailable to answer questions until he had spoken to the transportation safety board. That interview was planned later Friday.

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today," Mary Berkwits, of Stallings, North Carolina, a passenger who spoke of Sullenberger. She prepared to return to Charlotte on Friday morning at La Guardia Airport. "He was just wonderful."

The lead officials in the rescue spoke about the coordinated efforts and the subsequent towing of the plane, starting with a dramatic interlocking operation amid a swift current and freezing temperatures that enabled every passenger and crew member to reach the shore safely.

"I was worried if we didn't get them out right away," said a New York Waterway ferry captain Vincent Lombardi, first on the scene, "there would have been casualties."

The Emergency Medical Services chief, John Peruggia, agreed: "If we weren't there in another few minutes and got them on board and got them warm, they could have died."

A picture emerged late Thursday and Friday morning of just how perilous the rescue operations and the actual towing of the aircraft was, as boat operators battled a swift tide and the frigid temperatures while a captivated city watched continuous television reports and the Hudson turned from gold to silver in the gathering winter twilight.

Richard Johnson, 52, of the New York Fire Department, was on another one of the first boats to reach the plane, a 27-foot rescue boat.

"We came right alongside the wing, and the pilot did a great job of holding position," Johnson said. "They kind of jumped toward the boat and we pulled them off, one at a time. Their legs would be hanging over the side and then we had to heave them over the side of the boat, and we had to do that with each individual person."

He added: "It is very surprising they were able to hold that composure and stand on that wing, for 10 minutes or so. I am extremely surprised that no one slipped off that wing."

The aircraft was towed down the Hudson and tied up at Battery Park City, near the lower tip of the New York borough of Manhattan. In the glare of floodlights, the top of its fuselage, part of a wing and the blue-and-red tail fin jutted out of the water, but its US Airways logo and many of its windows were submerged.


[Crash cause unclear, but not pilot's heroism]