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Reconstructing the flight path

January 16, 2009 6:06:02 AM PST
Jeff Kolodjay settled into seat 22-A, near the rear of the Airbus A320, glad to be on his way. It had been a frustrating afternoon. First, the Spirit Airways flight Kolodjay, his father and four buddies were ticketed for was canceled. Now this one, US Airways Flight 1549 to Charlotte, N.C., was running behind.

But Kolodjay, already wearing his checkered golf cap despite the afternoon's 18-degree chill, was looking ahead. By night, he figured, the delays would be forgotten and he and his friends would be in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where temperatures in the 50s and a few days on the links awaited.

From where he sat, it looked as if every seat on the plane was filled. A mother holding a baby. Three executives from Wells Fargo, traveling on business.

In all, 155 people boarded the plane - and, amazingly, every one of them made it off alive, after a five-minute flight that ended in the freezing water of the Hudson River.

By 3 p.m., the flight was running about 15 minutes late. But that was certainly typical for New York's tangled LaGuardia Airport. It was nothing Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III - with 40 years of flying experience - hadn't seen before. Three minutes later, the flier known as "Sully" pushed back from the gate and pivoted his craft toward the runway. At 3:26, Flight 1549 was airborne.

As the plane climbed over Flushing Bay and the Bronx came into sight 1,800 feet below, passengers began to get comfortable. In his seat on the left side of the plane, Fred Berretta, heading home to Charlotte after a business trip, closed his eyes and started to nod off.

The plane continued its ascent - 2,800 feet, then 3,200. The apartment towers of Washington Heights quickly slipped below the plane, with the Hudson River and New Jersey ahead.

But up in the cockpit, Sullenberger knew something was wrong. Less than a minute into the flight, he radioed an air traffic controller at New York TRACON, or Terminal Radar Approach Control, in Westbury, N.Y. His plane had suffered a "double bird strike" and would have to return to the airport.

As the controller began routing the aircraft back to LaGuardia, Sullenberger looked down at northern New Jersey and asked the controller about the runway he had spotted below. What was it? That was Teterboro Airport, a strip popular with corporate jets. Sullenberger asked for permission to make an emergency landing.

In the cabin, passengers, too, were certain things had gone wrong. Berretta sat up straight upon hearing a loud boom, and looked out the window. Smoke was billowing from the engine mounted on the wing outside his window.

"There were fire and flames coming out of it and I was looking right at it," Kolodjay said.

The plane banked left, heading due south over the Hudson and losing altitude quickly. 2,000 feet. 1,600 feet. 1,200 feet. 400 feet.

"Brace for impact!" the pilot barked over the intercom in the cabin.

Berretta leaned forward in prayer. Kolodjay said a Hail Mary.

Moments later, the gray and blue craft slammed into the water with a jolt.

Sitting in traffic at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 34th Street, construction sales representative Jeremy Maycroft stared west toward the Hudson. Was that a plane?

Inside the cabin of Flight 1549, "there was a mixed emotion of yelling and crying," passenger Alberto Panero said. "But then a couple people just kind of took charge and calmed everyone."

As the gray waters of the Hudson lapped at the windows and began pouring into the cabin, passengers starting climbing out. The mother with the baby, seated near the back, tried to crawl over the seat in front of her. Women and children first!, some of the male passengers shouted. They made their way out the doors at the front and middle of the plane, and onto the wings.

The last to go was Sullenberger, who walked the length of the plane twice to make sure all were out.

Outside, the water was frigid, soaking Kolodjay from the waist down. But help was already at hand, with 14 vessels from the NY Waterway commuter ferry service and the Circle Line sightseeing fleet rushing to the scene.

At the helm of the ferry Thomas Jefferson, Capt. Vincent Lombardi pulled alongside, greeted by cheers. People were spread across the plane's wings. Others were in inflatable rafts. A few people were in the water. You see a lot of things in New York's waters, but who would believe this story?

The passengers grabbed life vests and lines of rope and were tossing them out.

"We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying," Lombardi said. "We gave them the jackets off our backs."

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