NEW YORK – A US Airways pilot ditched his disabled jetliner into the frigid Hudson River on Thursday afternoon after a collision with a flock of birds apparently knocked out both engines, but officials said rescuers safely pulled all 155 people on board into boats as the plane sank.
Gov. David Paterson pronounced it “a miracle on the Hudson.”
Flight 1549 went down minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport for Charlotte, N.C., splashing into the river near 48th Street in midtown Manhattan — one of the busiest and most closely watched stretches of the river.
“There were eyewitness reports the plane may have flown into a flock of birds,” said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown. “Right now we don’t have any indication this was anything other than an accident.”
Passenger Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., said he heard an explosion two or three minutes into the flight, looked out the left side of the Airbus A320 and saw one of the engines on fire.
“The captain said, `Brace for impact because we’re going down,”‘ Kolodjay said. He said passengers put their heads in their laps and started praying. He said the plane hit the water pretty hard, but he was fine.
“It was intense. It was intense. You’ve got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing,” Kolodjay said.
Rescuers in police and Coast Guard vessels and ferry boats rapidly converged on the plane and pulled passengers in life vests out the doors of the aircraft, which was submerged in the icy water up to its windows, its fuselage still apparently intact. The plane went down on one of the coldest days of the year, with the air temperature around 20 degrees and the water 41.
Police divers rescued a few people from the water, Bloomberg said. Other passengers were able to walk out onto the wings, then onto rescue boats.
There were no immediate reports of any serious injuries.
Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, fire officials said. The Coast Guard said it rescued 35 people who were immersed in the cold water and ferried them to shore. Fire officials said at least half the people on board were sent to hospitals with hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries. Paramedic Helen Rodriguez said the worst injury she saw was a woman with two broken legs.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an experienced pilot, said it appeared the pilot “did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then making sure everybody got out.”
Witnesses said the pilot appeared to guide the plane down.
“I see a commercial airliner coming down, looking like it’s landing right in the water,” said Bob Read, who saw it from his office at the television newsmagazine “Inside Edition.” “This looked like a controlled descent.”
Barbara Sambriski, a researcher at The Associated Press, saw the plane go down from the news organization’s high-rise office. “I just thought, ‘Why is it so low?’ And, splash, it hit the water,” she said.
The pilot reported a “double bird strike” less than a minute after taking off, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Union. The controller sent the aircraft back toward LaGuardia, but the pilot saw an airport below him and asked what it was, Church said. It was Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, and the pilot asked to land there, Church said.
The instruction to land at Teterboro was the last communication with the plane before it went into the river, Church said.
US Airways said 150 passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots were on board.
An official speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on identified the pilot as Chelsey B. Sullenberger III. A woman answered and hung up when the AP asked to speak with Sullenberger’s family in Danville, Calif. Sullenberger, 58, described himself in an online professional profile as a 29-year employee of US Airways, flying routes in North America, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and Hawaii. He started his own consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods Inc., two years ago.
“This is really a potential tragedy that may have become one of the most spectacular days in the history of New York City’s agencies, its coordination and the greatness of the people that work here and all they did for those passengers who are now tonight going to go home to their families,” the governor said.
Another passenger, Fred Berretta, who lives in Charlotte and was on way home from a business trip, told CNN: “As soon as we hit the water, the doors were opened on both sides of the plane.” He said some passengers went into the water.
“We were worried about them,” he said. “The folks in the water took the worst of it.”
Asked what he would say to the pilot and co-pilot, Berretta said: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Joe Mazzone, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot, said it is not unusual for birds to strike planes. In fact, he said, when planes get ready to take off, if there are birds in the area, the tower will alert the crew.
In the rare cases in which birds get sucked into an engine, “they literally just choke out the engine and it quits,” Mazzone said.
Twenty-seven years ago this week, an Air Florida plane bound for Tampa crashed into the Potomac River after hitting a bridge just after takeoff from Washington National Airport. The crash on Jan. 13, 1982, killed 78 people including four people in their cars on the bridge. Five people on the plane survived.
On Dec. 20, a Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people. That was the first major crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky.