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"You're My Hero!"

Survivors of the emergency landing of a US Airways jetliner on New York's frigid Hudson River are effusive in their praise of the pilot who guided the plane to safety and the rescuers who raced to help them after the plane hit the water.

Many told their compelling stories to co-anchor Harry Smith on The Early Show Friday.

Flight 1549 encountered problems, apparently hitting a flock of birds and losing power in both engines, minutes after taking off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C.

The pilot, Capt. Pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III opted to land the craft in the Hudson.

Passenger Bill Elkin says, "I was in the life raft with him at the end. And he was amazingly calm. And I gave him a hug and I said, 'You're my hero!"

"It's still pretty surreal, frankly. It's amazing to be sitting here," Elkin remarked to Smith.

"The landing actually was smoother than some other ones I've had, if you can believe that!" fellow survivor Eric Stevenson told Smith. "Just amazing. And the fact that he kept the aircraft not from cart wheeling or flipping over" was, as well, Stevenson added.

As the plane descended toward the Hudson, "I was looking out the window and I could see Manhattan going by," Elkin said, "and I'm looking -- I could see the water and I'm thinking -- I thought, 'This is it." '

"It was the most incredible feeling to think that that really could be the end," Stevenson said. "I took out a business card and wrote a quick note to my family and shoved it in my pocket because ... I didn't know how much longer we had."

The note, to his mother and sister, said simply, "I love you."

When the plane hit the Hudson, Elkin says, people were thrown around a bit but, "Then it stopped. And I thought, I'm alive!"

But the fear didn't end there for Elkin. "I was in the middle seat. When I got to the aisle, the water was already over my ankles. I thought, 'I can't believe I survived that and now I have to deal with this!" "

From the Palisades Medical Center in Weehawken, N.J., survivors Dave Sanderson and Barry Leonard told Smith they're nursing relatively minor injuries.

"It was maybe two, three minutes, max" until rescue boats from arrived, Sanderson said, "and they just kept coming. That was probably the greatest thing to see, that they responded the way they did, and the way they took action."

"They were definitely some of the heroes here," Leonard observed.

One rescuer literally gave Leonard the shirt off his back to help him warm up:

Some of the passengers picked right up and flew to Charlotte -- Flight 1549's destination -- after all.

Among them, Dick Richardson, Vince Spera and Carl Bazarian.

Bazarian told Smith a group of nine "kind of just bonded and we just kinda held hands, went to the airport, hugged each other and drank a lot of wine!"

Richardson said you "can't describe" what it was like seeing his family again after what he'd been through. "It was pretty overwhelming," he said.

Spera said of the pilot, "It's amazing, to be able to be a hero and save 150-plus lives in a day just because of your actions. I don't think any of us can thank him enough. ... He is a true hero, no question."

"I thought our chances were slim and none," Bazarian said, "because I just thought this plane would flip; if we came at the wrong angle, maybe five or six degrees different, it was a different story. He was brilliant. We all want to meet him!"