Among the passengers on US Airways Flight #1549 was Gerry McNamara, a partner at the executive recruiting firm Heidrick and Struggles. McNamara, a former U.S. Marine officer, wrote an inspirational account of his ordeal for the company’s internal newsletter, and it has since been e-mailed around the country. Below, his account of that harrowing day in January:
Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm, and I left the Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia Airport.
I was scheduled for a 5 p.m. departure, but able to secure a seat on the earlier flight scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. As many of us who fly frequently often do, I recall wondering if I’d just placed myself on a flight I shouldn’t be on!
Just prior to boarding I finished up a conference call with my associate, Jenn Sparks in New York, and the CIO of United Airlines. When I told him that I was about to board a US Airways flight, we all had a little fun with it.
I remember walking onto the plane and seeing a fellow with gray hair in the cockpit and thinking, “That’s a good thing… I like to see gray hair in the cockpit!”
I was seated in 8F, on the starboard side window and next to a young businessman. The New York to Charlotte flight is one I’ve taken what seems like hundreds of times over the years. We take off north over the Bronx and as we climb, turn west over the Hudson River to New Jersey and tack south. I love to fly, always have, and this flight
plan gives a great view of several New York landmarks including Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge.
I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next to me when we heard a terrible crash a sound no one ever wants to hear while flying and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt. Ten seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel. I knew we would be landing and thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to
Newark Airport. As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining up on the river, still I thought en route for Newark.
Next thing we heard was “Brace for impact!” a phrase I had heard many years before as an active duty Marine officer but never before on a commercial air flight.
Everyone looked at each other in shock. It all happened so fast we were astonished!
We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in. This is the last flight. I’m going to die today. This is it. I recited my favorite Bible verse, the Lord’s Prayer, and asked God to take care of my wife, children, family and friends.
When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and family getting off a last message. My Blackberry was turned off and in my trouser pocket; no time to get at it. Our descent continued and I prayed for courage to control my fear and help if able.
I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen, neither of them good. We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few if any survivors, bodies, cold water, fuel. Or we could hit one of the wings and roll and flip with the same result. I tightened my seat belt
as tight as I could possibly get it so I would remain intact.
As we came in for the landing, I looked out the windows and remember seeing the buildings in New Jersey, the cliffs in Weehawken, and then the piers. The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold. The stewardesses were yelling in unison “Brace! Brace! Brace!”
It was a violent hit the water flew up over my window but we bobbed up and were all amazed that we remained intact.
There was some panic people jumping over seats and running towards the doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down.
There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways.
Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job; they were opened in a New York second! Everyone worked together teamed up and in groups to figure out how to help each other.
I exited on the starboard side of the plane, three or four rows behind my seat through a door over the wing and was, I believe, the 10th or 12th person out. I took my seat cushion as a flotation device and once outside saw I was the only one who did; none of us remembered to take the yellow inflatable life vests from under the seat.
We were standing in six to eight inches of water and it was freezing. There were two women on the wing, one of whom slipped off into the water.
Another passenger and I pulled her back on and had her kneel down to keep from falling off again. By that point we were totally soaked and
absolutely frozen from the icy wind.
The ferries were the first to arrive, and although they’re not made for rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this river, having swum in it as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary part salt and part freshwater and moves with the tide. I could tell the tide was moving out because we were tacking slowly south toward Ellis Island, the Statue
of Liberty and the Battery.
The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing, and the first mate lowered the Jacob’s ladder down to us. We got a couple people up the ladder to safety, but the current was strong pushing the stern of the boat into the inflatable slide and we were afraid it would puncture it; there must have been 25 passengers in it by now.
Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved away.
Watch TIME’s video of the US Airways Flight 1549 rescue.
See pictures from the Buffalo plane crash.