Miracle: Flight 1549 hits home

Plane crash survivor Beth McHugh, far right, poses with her daughters and their families. Steve (in blue shirt) and Megan Kasten (in black above McHugh) and their sons sixth grader Nico (center, second row) and fourth-grader Gabe (next to McHugh) live in Charlottesville.

Few stories have endings as happy as that of doomed US Airways flight 1549, which crashed into the icy water of the Hudson River on Thursday after colliding with a flock of birds.

While the nation has rejoiced over the heroism of the captain and crew and the rapid response of nearby ferries that allowed every passenger and crew member to survive, Charlottesville resident Megan Kasten and her family have extra reason to celebrate the miraculous landing: her mother was on board.

The disaster unfolded quickly on Thursday– and was broadcast live on almost every news station– but Kasten, who was at her home off Park Street, hadn't been watching the news. At first she was unconcerned when her Syracuse-based sister called and asked, "Do you know Mom's travel plans?"

Moments later, she was very concerned.

"She said, 'I think she might have been on that plane that went down in the Hudson,'" Kasten recalls.

It was certainly possible. Kasten's mother, 64-year-old Beth McHugh, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but spends several days each week working in New York before flying home on Thursdays.

This past Thursday was no exception, and McHugh's daughters would soon learn that their mother was on board the flight.

Reached on Sunday afternoon at her daughter's home in New Jersey, McHugh recalled the terrifying ordeal that started just like any other flight but quickly went horribly awry.

"When you fly every week, you know which noises are okay,' says McHugh, "which bumps are just air, and what's normal." What she heard minutes after the plane took off, she says, was not normal.

"It was a loud, almost a sharp boom," says McHugh. " I thought something had actually hit the plane." One frightened traveler a few rows up let out a little scream, McHugh remembers, but McHugh remained silent, "listening for what might be next."

It wasn't what she heard that concerned her; it was what she could no longer hear: the left engine, which she says was several rows in front of her 20C aisle seat.

"Within two seconds, I heard the engine sound drop down to a dull whooshing," says McHugh. "Then I heard the engine go, drop completely, and I knew the engine was gone."

The plane, which moments earlier had been ascending, was now moving through the air almost silently, McHugh says.

"I felt like we were floating," says McHugh, and then "I could feel us dropping." Although her view out the window was limited by her position on the aisle, she could see that there was nowhere suitable to land.

"I thought, "Oh my God, we're over Manhattan," says McHugh, who soon could see the George Washington Bridge and feared the plane would strike it.

According to numerous published reports, pilot Chesley Sullenberger had considered attempting to make it back to LaGuardia or to the closer Teterboro airport in New Jersey. But the low altitude and loss of speed meant he'd need to make a tough decision– and an even tougher maneuver: ditching the aircraft in the Hudson.

In the back of the plane, McHugh says, she started to pray.

"You pray every prayer you can think of," says a tearful McHugh, whose emotions three days after the incident are raw. "I prayed to my dad, my mom, my grandpa. I said to my dad, I hope you're there waiting for me, and don't let me stay in the water too long."

Her prayers would be answered– but there were moments of sheer terror still ahead.

Captain Sullenberger came over the plane's speakers with a short message for his passengers: "Brace for impact."

And after the landing– which McHugh describes as a tremendous jolt– icy water immediately started filling the cabin, washing off the lightweight slip-on Crocs sandals she'd worn to simplify airport security shoe-removal requirements.

The rear exits were already submerged, and McHugh says being trapped in a plane filling with water was terrifying– but she credits the expertise of the flight attendants for allowing everyone to get off the plane safely

"They were all calm," she says. "They said, 'Come forward quickly,' and they were already inflating the life jackets, so we could put them right on." The pilot and copilot, she says, were also standing at the exits ushering people out the door. Passengers, she notes, did their part as well.

"The two men who were sitting in the exit rows were so fast getting those doors open," says McHugh, who was among the last to exit. She jumped down the slide at the front of the plane into a life raft that had taken on six to eight inches of ice water.

"I have never been so cold in my life," says McHugh.

For McHugh's daughters, including Kasten, there were only minutes to wait between learning that their mother had been on the plane that had crashed and finding out she was alive. Once aboard a ferry, McHugh had first called her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she lives in Charlotte. When Kasten called them to see if they'd heard any news, they were able to put her mind at ease. Her mother was safe and being carried to shore and to a hospital, where she was checked for injuries and hypothermia and then released.

Kasten, who immediately drove to New Jersey to be by her mother's side, says by Friday, the media onslaught had begun. McHugh and her daughters appeared on a New Jersey CBS affiliate on Friday, and then were guests Saturday on CBS' nationally broadcast Early Show.

"Larry King Live also called and wanted to bring us into the city that night," Kasten says, but McHugh was too exhausted and overwhelmed by the other media requests to make the trip. This week, McHugh has tentative plans to fly to Los Angeles to appear on another nationally broadcast program, although she says the Inauguration may cause producers to reschedule.

Kasten says the hours after the crash were so hectic, there was little time to process the emotions of the situation. But as time went on, and she heard the details, "that's when I got teary eyed and thought of the enormity of what could have happened but didn't. I thought, 'Oh my God, we could have lost her.'"

McHugh, too, says the emotional impact has built over the last several days.

"It's a life changing moment," she says, adding, "I'm going to hug every new person I meet."

It also reminds her of the message in a widely circulated Erma Bombeck essay, "If I had My Life to Live Over."

On Friday night, says McHugh, she and her daughters were celebrating her survival with a glass of wine. Afraid that she'd break the good stemware, she says, she poured the wine into a water glass, prompting her daughters to insist she switch up to the crystal.

"You need to stop thinking of how you need to protect things," McHugh says they told her."They're things. They're just things."

Indeed, she says she now realizes, life's too short for such worries. But it's also now longer than it could have been.

1 comment

Harrowing story. Great story.