It’ll be ten years this January 15 when US Airways Flight 1549 on its normal route to Charlotte, North Carolina, crash landed into the harsh and frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York City.
The flight became known as The Miracle on the Hudson, as, thanks to the steely calm of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles, every person on that aircraft miraculously lived to tell their stories of survival.
A decade may have passed but, for passenger Dave Sanderson, a tall, thoughtful man with clear blue eyes, it might as well have happened yesterday: He was the last passenger off that ill-fated flight and he saw and felt everything – the loud thump of large Canadian geese striking both of the plane’s engines just moments after takeoff. The eerie silence of the stunned passengers. Watching the famous New York skyline quickly coming into eye level and taking in the details of stunned onlookers’ faces as the plane rapidly descended.
And then hearing words no one ever wants to hear on any flight: Brace for impact.
“The day was like any other business trip day,” said Sanderson, now an inspirational speaker and author (his Moments Matter is a must read), in town recently to talk about his experiences. “It was clear but brutally cold and it was a flight like any other of the 100 flights I took yearly for my work (in sales),” added the father of four. And yet, 204 seconds after takeoff, his world was turned inside out, and the trajectory of his life was permanently altered.
How bad was the water landing? “It was pretty rough – my body lifted up and then forward out of my seat the moment it hit the water,” said Sanderson, adding that the pilot “pulled off a miracle landing…..he saved 155 lives.”
Immediately after the plane landed in the water, Sanderson, who was sitting in seat 15A and just four rows behind the left wing, says there was a fair bit of “screaming and hysteria, with everyone scrambling to get out of the doors.” Sanderson says he immediately started to pray as he made his way to the front of the aircraft. “But then I heard a voice in my head. It was my mom’s voice. She had died years earlier, but I heard her say clearly ‘If you do the right thing, God will take care of you.’
“I was brought up in sports and team building, and my Boy Scouts training kicked in at that point.”
So he quickly turned around and, when everyone was making their way to the front of the plane, Sanderson was making his way to the back. “I just wanted to make sure everyone got out. There was a lot of people helping others. I just wanted to make sure everyone was okay.”
His selfless actions made him the last passenger off the plane, and it meant that there was no room for him in the life raft – nor on the plane’s wings. The terror continued as the jet was pummeled not only by the river’s turbulence but also the boats that had rushed to the scene to start rescuing everyone, even though they came dangerously close to sucking survivors underneath their vessels. Even the helicopter hovering overhead had passengers terrified of being churned back into the frigid waters.
Meanwhile, Sanderson found himself in the plane with the ice cold water quickly moving up his waist, totally drenching him in river water mixed with a substantial amount of jet fuel. His body temperature was quickly dropping to grave levels, yet “I don’t remember the cold – I didn’t feel it. It was the adrenaline kicking in.” Until he was finally rescued – and sent to hospital where he was immediately stripped of his clothing, his body temperature reading a dangerous 94F (34.5C).
“I had no idea I was suffering hypothermia,” said Sanderson. “In the hospital, I was told the body temperature had to come up gradually, over several hours, and it was there that I felt the cold.”
He was also in shock, worrying about a multitude of details that needed to be addressed immediately – starting with telling his family before they heard the breaking news.
He called home and left a message that no one wants to hear: “I’ve been in a plane crash.”
The next day, Sanderson got back on a plane – but accompanied by an airline employee who made sure he was well cared for. “The following week, I was on another plane, and it was brutal. I was by myself, sitting at the very back, with no support.”
At that point, Sanderson started taking stock of his life: “Before the accident, it was all about my work and then my family. I had it wrong – my family, my faith.”
An invitation from his local church months after the accident galvanized him into a new speaking and leadership consulting career.
He has written about his experiences, and he has been written about in dozens of national publications. His speaking schedule is massive, yet when he talks about his experiences, it’s like he’s talking about them for the first time.
Surprisingly he didn’t suffer post-traumatic stress disorder – rather he lives its flip side: post traumatic growth syndrome, or benefiting positive psychological change due to the result of adversity. He embodies every aspect of the miracle of his survival.
Today, he has raised millions to the people who rescued him: The American Red Cross, and first responders, to name just a few.
If he carries any scars from his crash, it’s in the fact he now wears glasses – his optometrist found evidence of jet fuel behind his eyes – and both his ankles bear the scars of frostbite.
He has a smile that lights up the room.
“Everybody faces challenges in their lives,” says Sanderson, elaborating on his idea that we each endure our own traumatic life experiences at different points in our lives. “But it’s how you respond to them, and more importantly, how much attention you paid to your life and the confluence of lessons within it beforehand…that will illuminate how every moment in your life suddenly matters.”
– Check out Davesandersonspeaks.com for more details of his life’s work.
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