All the moments Vallie Collins hadn’t yet lived flashed before her eyes as she texted her husband her flight was going down.
Her younger son’s first homerun. Planning her kids’ birthday parties. Beaming as mother of the bride.
“I’m not a perfect mother, but I’m their mother,” the mom of three said. “And to think that I wouldn’t finish raising them was pretty hard.”
Collins was in seat 26D on US Airways Flight 1549, which crashed in the Hudson River in New York 15 years ago this month, a miracle landing that left all 155 people onboard alive and gave many a new start on life. The maneuver was dubbed by aviation experts as the most successful ditching of an aircraft of all time, raising Capt. C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger to hero rank and later movie fame in the film “Sully.”
Sitting in the front row of the plane that day, Ric Elias realized all the things he wouldn’t miss: Money, another win, another trip. He, too, thought on not being there to raise his family.
Nearby in seat 1C, Barry Leonard kept thinking of his family, from his wife and kids to his mother. He didn’t scream – “I didn’t do anything,” he said.
In these fleeting moments of the plane falling, the silence of both engines not whirring stood out to some onboard. Thoughts of dying invaded the minds of many, fearing the worst result.
Sullenberger and some of the passengers sat down with CNN for a special “The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper” marking the 15th anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson to reflect on how that day changed the course of their lives, in ways good and bad.
‘This is the captain. Brace for impact’
Taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Sullenberger said he remembered being shocked when a flock of Canada geese, with wingspans of up to six feet, hit the airplane. Then both engines lost thrust.
The experienced pilot made a quick announcement to the cabin alerting them to an emergency landing.
“‘This is the captain. Brace for impact,’” Sullenberger said he remembered telling the cabin.
“I could hear the flight attendants in the front began shouting their commands to the passengers in unison. ‘Brace, brace, brace. Heads down. Stay down.’ Over and over again.”
As panic rippled through the cabin, Sullenberger assessed his landing possibilities with air traffic control. He realized they wouldn’t make it back to LaGuardia, he said in air traffic control tapes, and later ruled out Teterboro and Newark airports in nearby New Jersey.
They were going to land in the Hudson River, he told air traffic control.
It was 208 seconds from the plane hitting the birds until Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles maneuvered and landed the plane on the Hudson River.
“It was a pretty big jolt,” rider Leonard said. “I guess my knee hit my sternum because my sternum cracked.”
The plane shook in the rough and violent landing, Collins remembered.
“When we seemingly stopped, I looked up and I thought, ‘I’m in one piece. This plane is in one piece.’”
But the satisfaction of landing was short-lived. Flight attendants directed passengers to the wings to exit the aircraft, as another problem appeared.
“The water just came rushing in,” Collins said. “That was my scariest moment. I thought, ‘Lord, please do not let me drown.’ It was so cold.”
It was 20 degrees that afternoon. Leonard unbuckled his seat belt, took off his shoes and jumped into the icy-cold river.
“I looked back and I saw people walking on water,” he said. “I actually thought that I died. And it was only after I started swimming back this way that I realized that people were on the wing, and I wasn’t dead.” The captain went through every row of the plane twice, looking for passengers. “I was in such a state of stress, I didn’t trust my eyes and ears,” Sullenberger told CNN. The plane was still taking on water – a flight attendant shouted they needed to get off the plane.
Miraculously, all 155 onboard survived.
Some passengers welcomed change, others felt lost
There is a clear before and after the landing on the Hudson, the moment that forever changed the lives of the people onboard the flight.
After the terrifying landing, Clay Presley, who had been in seat 15D, said he became extremely claustrophobic – something he still suffers from.
“Even today, I cannot get in those very close quarters unless I know and feel that I have got a very, very easy out,” Presley told CNN.