Flight 1549: Saving 155 Souls In Minutes

The Entire US Airways Crew Recalls The Dramatic Evacuation And Aftermath

This story was first published on Feb. 8, 2009. It was updated on July 4, 2009.

The job of evacuating 150 passengers fell to five of the most experienced pilots and flight attendants in the business. The crew of US Airways flight 1549 described the tense final moments, from the time the engines went out until every passenger was back on land.

60 Minutes and correspondent Katie Couric met the crew inside a US Airways hangar in Charlotte, N.C.

Among them they have well over 100 years of experience in the air. They are, along with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles and flight attendants Donna Dent, Sheila Dail, and Doreen Welsh, who was seriously injured.

"This is the first time you all have worn your uniforms since January 15th. Doreen? You don't have yours on," Couric pointed out.

"I just can't put it on yet. My uniform was in shreds, soaking wet. I had a different story in the back of that airplane, and mine was more violent and more - the uniform just went to pieces. I can't explain. I'm just not ready to put it on yet," Welsh replied.

To this day, Welsh still hasn't put her uniform back on. At the time of the accident, she and the rest of the crew were on the final leg of a four-day trip when the plane lost power. Co-pilot Jeff Skiles was the one who first spotted the birds.

"When you felt them hit the aircraft, did you know right away what they had done to the engines?" Couric asked.

"Both engines went right back to kind of a hushed state. And that's probably just about as bad as it gets when you're an airline pilot, to hear that," Skiles said.

"Which brings me to you all. Did you know what was going on?" Couric asked the flight attendants.

"It was so quiet," Dail remembered. "And Donna and I were seated beside each other. She was there. And I was here. And it so quiet. And I said, 'What was that?' And we were, you know, I whispered. And you did say, 'Maybe a bird strike.'"

"What was the sensation inside the cabin after the birds hit the engines?" Couric asked.

"I had some panic in the back. And I got out of my seat and I calmed everyone down. I said, 'It's okay.' I said, 'We might have lost one engine. We'll circle around.' And so I thought well everything is okay, and then I heard the old 'Brace for impact,'" Welsh remembered.

Asked what her reaction was hearing those words, Welsh said, "Terror, sheer terror."

Brace For Impact:

"I thought, 'Okay, we're gonna crash on the runway,'" Dail said.

"We began yelling, 'Brace, brace, heads down, stay down. Brace, brace, heads down, stay down,'" Dent remembered.

Dail told Couric the passengers were not getting in the brace positions when they started giving the command. "They were looking out the window. You know, people were just looking to see what was happening."

"Were they screaming, crying, praying? Was it quiet?" Couric asked.

"People were making cell phone calls in the back. But the most of the people that I could see were in their brace position. And it was so fast," Welsh said.

Welsh, who sat in the back of the Airbus A320, recalled the impact on the water. "The back of the plane hit first, correct? It was violent. Horrible. Things flew out."

Meanwhile, at the front of the plane, Dail said the impact felt less severe. "We were thinking that wasn't so bad. I mean it was a hard impact and I thought, well, the gear must not have been down because there was no bounce to it. It was just a slam."

Asked if they knew they were landing in water, Dent, who sat in the front next to Dail, said, "No, we didn't. Not until we looked out the window and saw the water. That's when we found out and of course I was still thinking well maybe there is water next to the runway that we just landed on."

"When I got out of my seat and saw that water, it was the most shocked I've ever been in my life. Wasn't expecting that," Welsh remembered.

Dent said people did not try to get out until Capt. Sullenberger gave the command to evacuate.

"Once the plane landed, what was the scene like inside that cabin?" Couric asked.

"I could see that I could open my door because the water - I could see it was lower than the door. So I opened my door and my chute automatically came out. It automatically inflated. It sounds wonderful to hear your chute opening up. And then they started coming and Donna was working her door. But there was no pushing and shoving," Dail said.

Dail said the evacuation wasn't chaotic. "There was nothing said. And there was no eye contact. They were just going."

But in the back of the plane, it was a very different story.

"A passenger had come back and pushed back me and opened the door, just enough that the water came flooding in. And I went back twice and tried to re-close it. It would only go so far. It wouldn't stop, and the water was just rising. You know, garbage cans were float[ing] coffee pots were floating like at this level. And things were flying. It was crazy back there," Welsh remembered.

The impact was so powerful it tore a hole under the airplane's tail. Doreen Welsh feared she and some of the passengers would not get out alive as water was pouring into the cabin.

"There was no doubt in my mind it was over. And I just went crazy and started yelling people and pushing people and getting people to go over the seats. And as I was getting up, I thought I might actually live. 'Cause a second ago, I thought I was gone. So my emotions had gone through, within seconds, accepting death and seeing life. It was unbelievable," she remembered.

"Some people told me the passengers jumped in the water. Many of them were afraid that the plane was going to explode or sink and that they wanted to get away from the aircraft," Couric said.

"I remember seeing a gentleman swimming. And I don't know if he had been on the wing or how he got there. But he swam over to the life raft. And people pulled him in. I heard that several people slid off the wing. And others would pull them back on," Dent remembered.

Yet amazingly, only two people on board were seriously injured. Doreen Welsh was one of them and had to be carried onto a life raft, unaware of a deep cut she had in her leg. "It was quite a gash. And it was all the way through the muscle and I thought I was going to pass out at that point from it."

The crew quickly cleared out all the passengers. Parents with children, an elderly woman, and dozens of people traveling on business, before Captain Sullenberger himself walked up and down the cabin twice to make sure everyone was out. Then he took a final look at his sinking plane, grabbed the maintenance logbook, and jumped into the last life raft now filled with passengers.

Asked if the passengers talked to him, Sullenberger said, "One man did. He said, 'You saved my life, thank you.'"

The captain's response? "You're welcome."

"And at that point also I was telling the people on the deck of the boats to rescue the people on the wings first, because we in the rafts were relatively safe," Sullenberger recalled.

He told Couric seeing the passengers standing on the wings was an "amazing sight" - one he'd never forget.

Sullenberger had landed the plane right between two ferry terminals. Within minutes, the first rescue boat pulled up alongside it, with others close behind. "It was amazing. It was crucial. It was lifesaving, literally," he said.

Asked what he would like to say to those rescuers and first responders, Sullenberger told Couric, "'Thank you' seems totally inadequate. I have a debt of gratitude I fear I may never be able to repay."

"According to someone in the pilots' union, you were still in total professional mode once you got off that airplane," Couric said.

"Well, I may have looked like it, but I was in shock," Sullenberger admitted. "I just crashed an airplane."

One of the first calls Sullenberger made was to his wife Lorrie.

Asked what he said to her, Lorrie Sullenberger said, "Well, I'll tell on myself and say that, when he did call our house, I was actually on the other line. And I ignored the phone call twice. And when he called the third time, I said to the person, 'I think I should take the call.' And so I hung up and took the call from Sully. And he was very calm and said, 'I just wanted you to know I'm okay.' But I thought that meant that he was on the flight coming home, that he had made the connection and was coming home. And I just said, 'Okay, that's good.' And he said, 'No, there's been an incident. I had to ditch an airplane in the Hudson River.' And I laid down on the bed for a moment. I wasn't crying, but I was just in shock, really shaking hard. I called an old best friend and said, 'Sully has just crashed an airplane and I don't know what to do.' And she said, 'Go get your girls.' And so I hung up and I went and got the girls and brought them home. "

Captain Sullenberger says even though he believed that everyone who had been on board was safe, he still wanted confirmation. "After bugging people for hours, I finally got the word that it was official. That the count was 155," he recalled.

All had survived.

Asked what he said when he heard the good news, Sullenberger said, "I don't remember saying anything. But I remember feeling the most intense feeling of relief that I ever felt in my life. I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart."

Read how the crew of US Airways flight 1549 was reunited with some of the people they saved.

Produced by Michael Radutzky, Lori Beecher and Jenny Dubin