Lessons From the Hudson

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US Air Flight 1549
21 Jan 2009

It started as everyone’s worst nightmare. At 3:26 pm on Thursday, Jan. 15, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from Laguardia airport, bound for Charlotte, N. C. One minute later, when the plane was over 3,200 feet in the air, the pilot realized that birds had gotten caught in the engines. The engines were going up in smoke. The enormous plane, holding 155 people, had no power. “Planes on fire love you and the kids,” is the text message that passenger Nick Gamache sent his wife.

The pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III radioed the control tower. They told him to try to land in Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. But he weighed his options, and decided to land in the Hudson rather than risk flying over densely populated areas. It was a tricky maneuver which required great skill. He warned his passengers to brace themselves for a hard landing, but he brought the great bird to rest in the water with incredible agility. “Like a log ride at Six Flags, it was that smooth,” Mark Hood described it.

Now that the fear of falling out of the sky had ebbed, a new fear arose. “OK, so you survived the impact,” said Martin Sosa, “now you are going to drown. The plane is slowly sinking, and there’s no movement to the outside.” At first it looked as though the plane would become a watery grave. The passengers all moved to the rear of the cabin, but the exit door was locked and the water was rising, seeping in through the metal. Everyone rushed to the front exit. A passenger opened the emergency door and people began streaming out, onto the wings. They started piling onto the life raft.

In a matter of minutes, police ferries and rescue personal surrounded the aircraft. A police helicopter hovered above and divers in wetsuits dropped into the water to help with the rescue. Passengers helped each other flee the plane. A woman brought her seatmate his seat cushion, which doubled as a life preserver, when he forgot it in his rush to open the doors and help others.

For an hour, as the sun set upon New York City, dozens of workers helped transfer all the passengers to waiting boats. Then the pilot walked up and down the aisle twice, making sure that none of his charges were left behind. Only when he knew his job was done, did he step out and enter the rescue raft himself. When he was later warmly congratulated by Michael A. L. Balboni, the state’s deputy secretary for public safety, the pilot said simply, “That’s what we’re trained to do.”

Few of us will ever live through the high drama of a downed airline. It is even less likely that we’ll find ourselves in the pilot’s seat of an aircraft with no engines, the lives of scores of people dependent on our good judgment and skill. Luckily, such freak accidents are few and far between.

What is likely, even certain, is that we’ll find ourselves in emotional maelstroms through which we will have to navigate ourselves and those around us to safety. It may take the guise of a cutting insult from our spouse. It may come in the form of a spat with a neighbor. It may appear as interpersonal turmoil at work. There are endless faces to strife, but the tools to putting out the flames are usually the same. And there is much we can learn about emotional crises from examining the masterful handling of this physical danger.

1. Stay calm and in control: Passengers were awed by pilot’s Sullenberger’s composure. He didn’t panic or get hysterical. He weighed his options, chose the best one, and then carefully carried it out. When we feel attacked or hurt, our gut reaction is often to lash out. But that’s usually the first step of a disagreement degenerating into a fight. To navigate life well, stay calm and weigh your options before acting.

2. Think of everyone involved: The control tower urged Sullenberger to try to land the plane in New Jersey. But he realized that he’d be endangering the lives of those living below the path of the plane if he’d attempt to do so. He decided to attempt the difficult feat of landing the plane in the Hudson instead. When dealing with others, we have to keep our eyes on the whole picture. If we want to come up with good solutions to disagreements we need to take into account the feelings and circumstances of all those involved.

3. Look out for the vulnerable: There was a baby on board the downed plane. His hysterical mother was having a hard time getting through the crowd and tried to climb over the seats with no success. Passenger Brad Wentzell simply picked up her and the baby, said, “You’re coming with me,” and maneuvered them to the exit. Good people look out for those more vulnerable. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to forget the silent witnesses. Fighting in front of our children or dragging them into toxic situations is to flout our responsibility to them. If an argument looks like it may get ugly, protect your kids and deal with it behind closed doors.

4. Take responsibility: Even as he stood on the ferry that had rescued him, Sullenberger didn’t rest. He had the metal clipboard with the passenger list. He went to the wheelhouse and radioed the other boats until every single passenger was accounted for. Too often, arguments erupt over a game of pass the buck. The man who can say, “The buck stops here,” can accomplish great feats.

5. Pray: Many of the passengers prayed. As the specter of death flashed before them, they reached out to G-d, who heard their prayers. When misery swirls around you, and your best attempts to change things fails, reach out to Your Father in heaven. Ask Him to help you bring peace to your life.

6. Believe in Miracles – and in Yourself: Even atheists have dubbed the remarkable events of last Thursday “the miracle on the Hudson.” What looked like it would become a colossal tragedy was transformed into a heartwarming story of triumph. It happened because of a combination of incredible Divine intervention and people acting their best, uniting to save others. No relationship is hopeless. No disagreement insurmountable. Believe you can get past it, and then put your best foot forward and do what you can to make the miracle come true.

Details of the story were taken from The New York Times.

Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications and is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.