Passengers marvel they're alive

January 15, 2009 6:17:29 PM PST
Shock, relief, gratitude. Most of all, the soaked and freezing passengers of Flight 1549 just seemed amazed to be alive. "You've got to give it to the pilot," said Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., who was aboard the US Airways jet that ditched in the frigid Hudson River after an apparent collision with a flock of birds. "He made a hell of a landing."

"I can't believe he managed to land that plane," echoed Alberto Panero, a passenger who spoke to CNN by telephone.

Kolodjay, 31, who had been headed to a golfing trip in Myrtle Beach, N.C., said he noticed a jolt and felt the plane drop. He looked out the left side of the jet and could see one of the engines on fire.

"Then the captain said, 'Brace for impact because we're going down,"' Kolodjay said. "It was intense." He said some passengers started praying. He said a few Hail Marys.

"It was bad, man," Kolodjay said. But he and others spoke of a sense of calm and purpose that quickly descended on the passengers and crew as the plane started filling with water and rescue boats swarmed to the scene. They decided women and children would be evacuated first.

"Then the rest of us got out," he said.

At first, Panero said, "there was a mixed emotion of yelling and crying." But then "a couple people just kind of took charge and calmed everyone. Everyone got to the exits, and whoever was there just opened them up."

Passenger Fred Berretta, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., was on his way home from a business trip. He had one message for the pilot and co-pilot: "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said.

After the impact, dozens of shivering passengers wrapped in white blankets evacuated aboard rescue boats.

"Their feet and legs were wet." said Dario Gongora, 60, a supervisor on the Circle Line ferry service, which offers sightseeing rides around Manhattan. "It looked like they were in shock."

Kolodjay was unhurt, but some other survivors were taken to hospitals for treatment of hypothermia or other injuries. At least one, a crew member, was being examined for a possible bone fracture. It was not immediately clear how many required treatment.

Police scuba divers arrived at the scene to see a woman in her late 30s or early 40s in the water, hanging onto the side of a ferry boat.

She was "frightened out of her mind," suffering from hypothermia and unable to climb out of the water, said Det. Robert Rodriguez of the New York Police Department.

The detectives swam with her to another ferry and hoisted her aboard. As they were wrapping that up, another woman, who was on a rescue raft, fell off. So they put her on a Coast Guard boat.

About 70 passengers were taken to the New Jersey side of the river, said Jeff Welz, director of public safety for the city of Weehawken.

Some looked "smiling and happy to be alive." Others were "a little stunned," Welz said. "I'm looking at them and saying, 'I don't know if I'd look good if I went through what they went through."' He said the injuries included hypothermia - the water was 42 degrees or less - and bruises. None appeared life-threatening.

Emergency medical service worker Helen Rodriguez was one of the first rescuers on the scene.

She saw stunned, soaking passengers, saying "I can't believe I'm alive." The worst injury she saw was a woman with two broken legs.

At St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, the feeling was the same, said emergency room Dr. Gabriel Wilson. "The few I talked with know how lucky they were," he said.

Eight survivors were in good condition there, while two were still being evaluated, including a female crew member with a possible bone fracture, Wilson said.

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