Passengers: First Engine on Fire, Then Frigid Water

"I really didnt' want to drown" in the plane, remembers one passenger.

January 15, 2009, 3:53 PM

Jan. 16, 2009 — -- A giant crane and a barge were brought in today to begin hauling a partially submerged jetliner out of the Hudson River, one day after it was apparently knocked out of the sky by birds and spectacularly splashed down alongside Manhattan's skyscrapers.

The US Airways Airbus A320 has been lashed to a Manhattan pier since all 155 passengers were safely evacuated by a flotilla of ferries, tug boats, and emergency craft. A giant crane and a barge began working today to drag it ashore.

While the passengers were stunned, bruised and shivering from their icy ordeal, they were largely unhurt and are hailing the plane's pilot Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III as a hero.

Tales of fear and survival inside the plane began to emerge today.

Irina Levshina told "Good Morning America" that she was sitting in the last row of the plane.

"I feel quite shaken still," Levshina said.

Before the plane took off, the woman sitting next to her blurted out that she was petrified of flying.

But during the terrifying descent, she was the one who calmed people down, Levshina said.

"Girls, its going to be OK, I'm the one that's afraid of flying,'" the unidentified woman told Levshina and another woman in the back row. The women held hands and prayed.

Being in the last row made it even scarier once the plane had settled on the river and water began rushing in.

"I thought I'd be the last one out of the plane. That was really scary," Levshina told "GMA."

"At first it was relatively calm, but when people realized we had to get out, people were prompting others to get off the plane. With yelling. I was one of those. I didn't want to drown there," she said.

Passenger Dave Sanderson said he heard a bang and looked out the window to see a startling sight.

"I saw the flames coming from underneath the wings," Sanderson told "GMA." "Once again, I said this is not a good thing."

He went from the frying pan into the river.

"It was so cold. So, it woke you up pretty quickly. You get out of the shock and start moving forward.

Hero Pilot

Everyone praised the performance of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

"It would appear that the pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river, and then making sure everybody got out," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference late today.

The mayor said Sullenberger "walked the plane twice to verify if anyone was onboard" before exiting himself.

"You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing," said Jeff Kolodjay, 31, a passenger on the plane from Norwalk, Conn.

Sullenberger is believed to have activated the plane's "ditching switch," a device that closes valves and openings on the bottom of the fuselage, preventing the plane from taking on water and allowing it float.

"It is true the plane has a ditching switch, which closes the outflow valve and the avionics ventilation ports - in other words, those openings below what would be a theoretical float line," said Mary Anne Greczyn, a spokeswoman for Airbus.

All passengers and crew aboard were reported safe after New York City firefighters, police and ferries rushed to the aid of the US Airways jet, which floated in the river near the historic aircraft carrier The Intrepid.

Passengers wearing yellow life jackets were rescued off the wings as others held onto the plane's seat cushions, which serve as flotation devices. Some of those rescued were taken to area hospitals to be treated for exposure and secondary injuries. Some 50 other people -- including several children -- were kept at a ferry terminal and warmed with blankets.

Kolodjay told reporters after being rescued that the effort was "organized chaos," and that male passengers allowed women to deplane first.

"I'm just happy to be alive, to be honest; I don't know what else to say," said Kolodjay.

"Our main concern is the rescue effort and whether people could swim," an emergency worker said onshore near the main emergency staging area where passengers were taken.

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to the crash site to investigate. And Airbus, the manufacturer of the airplane, released a statement saying the company would send "a go-team of flight safety investigators to provide full technical assistance" to the NTSB and other agencies.

In a statement from the White House, President Bush said he was coordinating with state and local officials.

"Laura and I are inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders and volunteers who rescued passengers from the icy waters of the Hudson," Bush said. "We send our thoughts and prayers to all involved in the accident."

'Can't Believe What I Saw'

The plane was carrying as many as 148 passengers and five or six crew members, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Only 30 seconds after takeoff at 3:26 p.m. ET, the pilot reported two bird strikes and said he wanted to return to LaGuardia Airport.

Controllers began giving him directions for return, but the pilot requested clearance to land at the nearby Teterboro airport in New Jersey. The tower reportedly lost contact soon after that last transmission.

Commuter boats in the area were seen fishing people from the river and rescuing passengers standing on the plane's wings after the crash.

ABC News' Robin Roberts, who saw the plane crash from her apartment window, said it appeared to be a controlled landing.

"It completely just hit the water full force, never bounced or anything like that, and came to a relatively quick stop," Roberts said. "But… it didn't skim along the water. There was very little trauma to the aircraft. It was… I'm still… can't believe what I saw."

"I would say, 10 seconds -- I… have binoculars. I could see that the front door was, they were able to open the front door, and within a couple of minutes a water taxi just happened to be in that direction, and I could see that it was making its way to the airplane as fast as possible," she said.

Freezing Temps, Fast Action

The water temperature in the river was reported at 40 degrees, just above freezing. The air temperature hovered near 20 degrees.

Hospitals in both New York and New Jersey were alerted to the crash and in crisis mode, but within an hour of the crash many were told to stand down as most passengers appeared in good shape.  Some 40 minutes after the plane went down, authorities reported all the passengers were rescued and safe, though hospitals were accepting some rescued passengers for treatment for exposure.

Pat Smith, spokesman for the New York Waterway, which operates the ferries that came to the plane's rescue, said the location was near the "waterway commuter route [and] as many as 10 ferries can respond within minutes at this time of day."

John Ostrom of the Metropolitan Airports Commission out of Minneapolis chairs the Bird Strikes Committee, which advises the aviation industry on wildlife management to eliminate possible hazards.

"There's a variety of ways a bird can take down a plane," he told ABC News today. "There have been instances where birds the size of robins bring a plane down, all the way up to Canada geese."

Birds can fly into plane engines, shutting them down, or cause pilots to lose control of the plane by penetrating the windshield. And there's not much pilots can do to avoid bird strikes, which happen "every day," according Ostrom.