When Ricardo C. Valeriano boarded US Airway’s Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, he had no idea that what was to be a routine business trip would turn into a life and death experience. As the flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport ascended into the afternoon sky, a sudden jolt stopped the plane’s engines from operating, causing the pilots to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. It took him weeks before he was able to convey his story. Now, in his own words, he shares what was going through his mind, confronting the notion of dying and why he made the decision to fly again the very next day.
As boarding time approached, passengers began forming a line and within minutes we were on the plane stowing our bags and finding our assigned seat. I was assigned to seat 3F on the right side and in the front of the plane. I placed my overnight bag in the overhead storage bin and laptop bag under the seat directly in front of me. I’d flown nearly 100,000 miles in 2008 alone and have always felt extremely comfortable flying. I heard the roar of the massive engines pulling the plane quickly down the runway in a seemingly routine takeoff. Unknowingly, I was witnessing the beginning of the shortest flight I had ever taken.
As the plane climbed into the sky, it was like any other flight I’d taken over the past 20 years. While gazing out of the plane’s small passenger window I noticed a strange formation of what I perceived as fighter jets flying in the distance, but actually they were birds flying much closer. Within seconds, the plane was jolted by what has since been reported as a double-bird strike to each of the two turbine engines. Immediately, I knew we’d hit something because you could hear this thumping sound, and then there was that smell that came through the cabin. It was a mix of what I presume was feathers, flesh, and jet fuel. It’s a horrible smell that I will never forget.
I felt the right side of the plane turn and try to rise and I started to feel increasingly alarmed and confused, but then it appeared that the pilots had regained control. As soon as my heart rate and adrenaline level reduced slightly, I noticed the New Jersey skyline to the right and the Hudson River beneath us. That’s when we started to feel the plane lose altitude and speed. Before we could even think anything, the captain spoke over the announcement system and said three words in a very calm yet direct voice: “brace for impact.”
There wasn’t time to panic. I sat there thinking, Am I going to survive? Am I going to see my family again? Am I going to get injured or hurt? I thought there was a very good possibility that I might die. I was optimistic but there was a reality there as well. I had no choice but to accept and prepare for what was about to happen in a matter of seconds, that my fellow passengers and I would be crashing into the frigid waters of the Hudson River below.
I assumed the emergency landing position by lowering my head and grabbing for my ankles, and sneaking very quick peeks out of the window to gauge the timing of impact. At this point I realized that my life was going to change forever, assuming I escaped this incident with my life.
As the plane crashed into the Hudson, you could hear the roar of water rushing along the sides of the plane and then we came to a complete stop. I ripped my seatbelt from around my waist and reached under my seat and grabbed a yellow life vest. I quickly put it around my neck and noticed that passengers were already standing up and moving towards the front of the plane and exiting out of the cabin doors. There was a lot more chaos in the rear of the plane because water was already coming in, but there were looks all around of complete panic and crying as passengers started to jump from the plane into life rafts outside.
I was in complete disbelief that this was happening. It felt very surreal and overwhelming. I jumped into a raft and then onto a ferry. I called my wife and got her voicemail. I left a message telling her that my plane had crashed but that I was okay. I could still see those passengers who were stranded on the slightly submerged wings of the plane. I felt so horrible for them. I vividly recall seeing ferry crew members throwing life vests towards the wings and making efforts to rescue them.
The following moments were filled with phone calls, a barrage of e-mails, and being interviewed by the FBI and New York City’s police, rescue, medical and fire departments. We were there for several hours until I boarded a bus headed to a hotel. It wasn’t until then that I realized that my wallet, car keys, and all my clothes, including my coat, were still on the plane. A friend met me and purchased a coat, hat and gloves for me. It was freezing cold in New York that day. Later that evening I traveled to my parent’s house in Connecticut, where I kept having the images of the flight and rescue race in my mind.
I started thinking about how I was going to get back home to Charlotte. I thought I might catch a train or drive but it was Inauguration Weekend and the idea of driving through some parts of the Metro D.C. area gave me a chaotic feeling. My mother turned to me and said, “You’re going to fly. That’s what you do. It’s your occupational hazard.” Somehow, that gave me the comfort to go home by plane the next day. I really didn’t want to but I wanted to see my family and just be home.
I got home the next day before my kids and they were surprised that I was there. There was a lot of hugging and kissing. I realize now that every day is a gift and you have to take advantage of the time you have with your loved ones. I know that my life will never be the same, but I’m grateful to God and the flight crew that I’m here to share with you a snapshot of the day my life changed forever.
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