While survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 were affected differently by the abrupt diversion of their flight to Charlotte into the Hudson River five years ago, some contend a near-death experience can prove to be a surprising positive in the long haul.
When the plane you’re on is falling out of the sky, “you get that moment of clarity when you say, ‘if I get another chance, I’m going to live my life differently,” said Dave Sanderson, 52, a Charlotte software salesman. Sanderson, a father of four, realized that the most important commodity in life is not money, but time. Before Jan. 15, 2009, “I was very focused on earning money and supporting my family, but I looked back and realized how much I missed with my older daughter.” It was a deficit he moved quickly to rectify. “I changed my whole lifestyle,” to be more present in the lives of his wife and children, said the one-time occupant of 15A.
Sanderson, who jokes that the event turned him into “a C-level celebrity,” said he was moved to find how the anonymous, unknown human family can be counted upon to act rationally and selflessly in a crisis that impacts others: 1549’s pilots responded to calamity with unerring calm.
Passengers and crew swiftly mobilized with a minimum of hysteria to exit the plane. First responders and volunteers dropped everything to help with the rescue of strangers. “If you have faith, you can pull off anything – not necessarily spiritual faith, but faith in each other,” said Sanderson, who wrote a book and became a motivational speaker following the accident.
Vallie Collins, 42, of Maryville, Tenn., who also became a motivational speaker, said she learned the importance of kindness, empathy, staying physically fit and applying perspective to difficult situations. “There’s a lot of reflection,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. There’s really nothing that’s that bad. . . .you see every day as a gift” she said.
Barry Leonard, 60, of Charlotte, N.C. retains an enduring gratitude for the quick thinking and concentration of Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who saved not just the lives of his passengers and crew, but untold numbers of people in New York City or New Jersey who could have been killed had Sullenberger tried to bring the crippled aircraft down on land.
“What Sully did was absolutely amazing: His actions impacted so many people — not just those on the plane, but their family trees: Children have been born since that time!” marveled Leonard, 60, who did not realize until after he evacuated the ditched plane he had cracked his sternum.
Leonard already had a “bucket list,” but took concrete steps to cross off the items on it after his near-death experience. He recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son and walked from Santiago to Finisterre in Spain with his daughter.
He also “left the company I was working with,” to become the CEO of Welspun USA Inc., a job that was located in Charlotte, N.C., treasuring the extra time with his family the new position allowed. And he took to heart the advice of an early mentor, who asked him if he wanted to be remembered as a giver or a taker. He donated a library to the children of the Masai tribe in Tanzania with his son, and now helps to endow various college scholarships. “For me, it’s all about giving back. I do everything I can to give to other people,” said Leonard.
Many have struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Leonard saw two different therapists to alleviate the PTSD he suffered after the event, “but the best therapy for me was talking to the other passengers, because we all went through the same thing.”
His fellow passengers have now become “a second family,” said Leonard, noting that crisis can prove a crucible of unexpected friendships.
Still, the first 90 seconds of a flight still provoke a frisson of anxiety for the frequent flyer. Asked if he still thinks of Flight 1549 when boarding a plane today, Leonard said: “Every single time.”