15 years after ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, some struggle with PTSD, others learn to fly

(CNN) — When Vallie Collins texted her husband to tell her their flight was about to land, all the moments she had yet to experience flashed before her eyes.

His youngest son hit his first home run. Plan your child’s birthday party. Radiant as the mother of the bride.

“I’m not a perfect mother, but I am his mother,” the mother of three said. “It makes me sad to think that I won’t be able to do the job of raising them.”

Collins was seated in seat 26D of US Airways Flight 1549, which plunged into New York’s Hudson River 15 years ago this month, a miraculous landing that saved all 155 people on board and left many with devastating consequences. new life. The exercise was called the most successful crash landing in history by aviation experts and elevated Captain CB “Sully” Sullenberger to hero status, later made famous in the movie “Sully.”

Rick Elias (Image: CNN)

That day, sitting in the front row of the plane, Rick Elias realized all the things he wouldn’t miss: money, another win, another trip. He also reflected on not being able to raise his family there.

Nearby, in seat 1C, Barry Leonard couldn’t stop thinking about his family, from his wife and children to his mother. He didn’t yell, “I didn’t do anything,” he said.

At the moment the plane descended, the quietness of the two non-humming engines caught the attention of some on board. Thoughts of death invade the minds of many people, fearing the worst.

Sullenberger and some of the passengers spoke to CNN on the 15th anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson for the “The Whole Anderson Cooper Story” special to reflect on how that day changed the course of their lives, for both good and bad. bad.

“This is the captain speaking. Prepare for impact.”

Taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Sullenberger said he remembers being shocked when a flock of Canada geese with wingspans up to six feet collided with the plane. Both engines then lost thrust.

The experienced pilot quickly announced an emergency landing warning to the cockpit.

“This is the captain speaking. Prepare for impact,” Sullenberger said.

“I could hear the flight attendants in front of me starting to shout their orders in unison to the passengers. ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on. Keep your head down. Stay down.’ Over and over.”

As panic spread in the cockpit, Sullenberger assessed his landing options through air traffic control. He said in the air traffic control recording that he realized they could not return to LaGuardia Airport and later ruled out nearby Teterboro and Newark airports in New Jersey.

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. (Source: CNN)

He told air traffic controllers they would land in the Hudson River.

It took 208 seconds from the time the plane hit the bird until Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Scales took control of the plane and landed it in the Hudson River.

“It was a pretty big shock,” said passenger Leonard. “I guess my knee hit my sternum because my sternum was fractured.”

Collins recalled the plane rocking during the bumpy, violent landing.

“When we obviously came to a stop, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m in one piece. This plane is in one piece.'”

But the relief of landing was short-lived. When another challenge arose, flight attendants directed passengers to the wings to exit the aircraft.

“The water was coming in,” Collins said. “That was the scariest moment for me. I thought, ‘Lord, please don’t let me drown.’ It was so cold.”

The temperature that afternoon was -6 degrees Celsius. Leonard unbuckled his belt, took off his shoes, and jumped into the frozen river.

Barry Leonard (Image: CNN)

“I looked back and saw people walking on the water,” he said. “I really thought I was dead. It wasn’t until I started swimming back that I realized someone was on the wing and I wasn’t dead.” The captain checked each row of the plane twice to see if there were any passengers. “I was so stressed that I didn’t believe my eyes or my ears,” Sullenberger told CNN. The plane continued to take on water: A flight attendant yelled for them to get off the plane.

Miraculously, all 155 passengers survived.

Some passengers embraced the change, others felt lost

There was a very different moment before and after landing in the Hudson River, one that forever changed the lives of those on board.

After the tragic landing, Clay Presley, who was seated in seat 15D, said he became extremely claustrophobic, a condition he still suffers from today.

“Even today, I can’t get into those small spaces unless I know and feel like I have a very, very easy way out,” Presley told CNN.

Clay Presley (Image: CNN)

Although Presley said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the emergency landing, he decided to face his fear of flying. The former businessman learned to fly.

The heroism of Sullenberger and the first responders that day inspired him to become a pilot. Presley flew small aircraft, and his own plane had the tail number 1549H, in honor of US Airways Flight 1549.

Psychologists such as Sonya Lyubomirsky say people react differently to traumatic experiences. Some people may feel and remain depressed, while others may experience depression and recover, showing resilience, he said.

Others may return to a higher starting point than before, said Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and a happiness expert.

Passenger Pam Seagle, who was seated in Seat 12A, said the near-death experience inspired her to re-examine her life and make significant changes.

In 2009, while working as a senior marketing executive, she realized she wanted to spend more time with her two then-teenage children and husband. Siegel also asked his boss to change jobs to find greater satisfaction.

Pam Siegel (Image: CNN)

“Women don’t have enough rights or economic empowerment, so we’re trying to change that,” said Siegel, who is now developing plans to promote women’s economic empowerment.

Richard Tedeschi, a researcher and psychologist with more than 40 years of experience, explains that this kind of growth after trauma is common, but everyone’s path is different.

“They often tell us that the events they experienced changed the course of their lives,” Tedeschi said. “Maybe it opens them up to something they’ve never considered before.”

However, for some passengers like Collins, the positive changes are less obvious.

“I wasn’t myself anymore,” she said, recalling how she felt a month later. “I was very sad, very sad. All of a sudden, I felt like I wasn’t ready to move on.”

Collins describes his character as Tigger from “Winnie the Pooh,” a tiger full of energy and optimism. But then he felt like Eeyore, a sullen and depressed donkey, the complete opposite of Tigger.

Vallie Collins (Image: CNN)

“I participated in one of the most significant events in aviation history and escaped unscathed,” he said. “What’s wrong with you? Reaction! You’re so ungrateful.”

Collins believes some aspects of her life improved from that day: She became more involved in her church and community and served on nonprofit boards. However, he knew he would never be the same person who boarded that plane.

The power of feel-good stories

The miraculous landing on the Hudson occurred at a time when American anxieties and anguish were taking hold. It was a time of recession, bank failures, layoffs and financial instability.

It became the feel-good story of the era, with people marveling at the miraculous landing and the heroism of the crew and lifeguards who came to the rescue.

“There was a hero pilot,” New York Governor David Paterson said after the incident. “We did wonders on 34th Street, and I think now we’ve done wonders on the Hudson River.”

Sullenberger’s wife, Lori Sullenberger, recalled that the media frenzy surrounding him had generators and reporters buzzing outside his home. But it also brings something else.

The family’s fax was accompanied by a handwritten note that read: “America needs a win. Thank you,” the unsigned fax read.

Lori Sullenberger said many people around the world sent so much mail that employees had to pack it into shipping containers. One of the letters still stands out.

“Last year, I lost my father to cancer. I lost my job, then I lost my house. I lost my faith. Sir, you gave it back to me,” Sullenberger’s wife said.

Crowds gather to pay tribute to US Airways pilot CB Sullenberger during a memorial service in Danville, California on January 24, 2009. (Photo credit: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

The whole experience made Sullenberger reflect on the everyday actions of those who may be invisible.

“This is a reminder of all those non-corrupt, courageous, compassionate people who have been doing things, important things, compassionate things. We just don’t know who they are,” he said.

“They don’t show themselves as openly as we do. But that’s the potential that every one of us has.”

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