Little did she know when she boarded US Airways Flight 1549 on January, 15, 2009, that she would be among the 150 passengers and five crew members who would survive the plane’s emergency landing in the Hudson River after Canadian geese damaged the engines. Miracle on the Hudson, as the plane came to be known, is on permanent display at Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte.
McHugh now volunteers at the museum, sharing stories about what happened that day, and she keeps in touch with other survivors. The Roads Traveled interviewed McHugh there recently while she was leading a school group.
The Roads Traveled: Why were you on this flight?
Beth McHugh: I was coming home from a client meeting. I had bought lottery tickets. When I got them back four month later with my luggage, I saw one ticket had the numbers 15 and 49. People were edgy because the flight was delayed. My seat was 20C. We took off at 3:26 rather than the scheduled 2:45. Five and a half minutes later, we were in the Hudson. Some people call it a water landing. Those of us who were on the plane call it a crash.
TRT: When did you realize the plane was in trouble?
BMcH: I heard a loud explosion. It was the first flight for the guy beside me. I knew the man in 20A. He looked out the window then at me with a look that said I’m guessing you understand. He gave me an imperceptible shake of his head, like no, because he could see the engine on fire. The plane was still, almost like a library. I realized there was no engine sound, no upward thrust, and we’re tilted down, going down and floating. I could feel the plane bank to the left.
All I could see were skyscrapers. I thought this isn’t going to end well, and we’re all probably going to die because we’ll be crashing into New York City. I could smell something burning, but there wasn’t a fire in the cabin. My most significant memory is of a little girl behind me yelling, “Mama.” She was seated with her dad behind the mother, who told her daughter it was OK. I thought the mother was thinking that she couldn’t hold her daughter when we crash.
I heard Captain Sullenberger say brace for impact. That was the signal to the flight attendants to start their process. They yelled brace, heads down, feet on the floor, like a chant. When something traumatic like this happens, your brain stretches it out so you can cope with it. It seemed like it took forever, but it was seconds.
TRT: Did you phone your family while this was happening?
BMcH: I thought about it, but then I thought I could be thinking and praying instead, and I thought how horrible it would be for them to hear us crashing.
TRT: When did you realize you were in the river?
BMcH: I felt the impact, but didn’t know until water rushed up from the floor and washed off my shoes. I didn’t know we were alive. I got up and looked at my seat to be sure my body wasn’t still there. It was an out of body thing. I hadn’t thought to take my reading glass off my head, and they made a permanent dent in my skull when my head hit the seat back. I got a seat cushion, walked through hip-deep water, and went out the door we had used to board. The air temperature was 18 degrees, and the water was 38. It’s another part of the miracle that there was no ice in the river. I got into a raft. People had varying degrees of exposure and hypothermia.
Some ferry boat captains saw the plane going down and came after us. New York is better prepared for something out of the ordinary, so we couldn’t have been in a better location if something like this had to happen. Fire, police, port authority, divers were all there.
TRT: When did you first fly again?
BMcH: Five days later to Los Angeles to be on the Ellen Degeneres show. I was nervous about getting on a long flight, but once in the air I settled down. Talking about the crash was critical to my healing.
TRT: What do you tell children on the museum tours?
BMcH: I love the museum and its educational programs. I love talking to the kids about flying and airline safety, that it’s safe to fly, and to be prepared and know what to do in an emergency, and that people will help you.
TRT: What’s it like when you fly now?
BMcH: I always read the safety instruction card, reach for the life jacket under the seat, and look to the exits – not out of fear, but because I know how your brain works when you’re in shock. You can’t think and you need things that are fixed in your memory so they come to you readily.
TRT: What do you think when you see the plane in the museum?
BMcH: It sometimes boggles my mind when I walk in here and I see the size of the aircraft and I think how in the world did it float long enough on the water for all of us to get off safely.
TRT: What were your key takeaways from your experience?
BMcH: A reminder that the trite expressions are true, like the people in your life are what matter, and, if you have a dream, do it because life is short. By all rules of science, some or all of us should have died. There’s a reason we’re still here. Maybe someone had a special reason and needed to survive, and that’s why we’re all alive. I saw the best side of humanity in different forms that day. There were bunches of heroes.
No wonder McHugh’s business card says, “Expect a miracle every day.”
This is part two of a two-part story about Carolinas Aviation Museum, home of Miracle on the Hudson.