WASHINGTON -- Pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has garnered most of the headlines for safely piloting a crippled jet onto the Hudson River, but investigators and aviation workers say there is an unsung group that also deserves praise: the three flight attendants on board.
Sheila Dail, 57, Doreen Welsh, 58, and Donna Dent, 51 — with a combined 92 years of experience on the job — were the ones who opened emergency exits, ordered passengers to don life jackets and directed them out of the plane. All 150 passengers escaped.
"They did everything right," said Mike Flores, who heads the wing of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) union, which represents the three. "Had they made one mistake, we would be talking about a completely different outcome than we saw on Thursday."
Including the co-pilot, all five members of the crew were invited to attend today's presidential inauguration.
According to information from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the airline, Dail and Dent were seated at the front of the cabin. They told investigators they shouted "Brace!" just before landing and then directed passengers to life rafts on the left and right side.
Welsh was seated at the rear, where the landing was more violent, the NTSB said. She waded in chest-high frigid water, directing passengers to exit over the wings, she told investigators.
Only after all the passengers had escaped did she realize she had suffered a deep cut on her leg, NTSB member Kitty Higgins said.
Higgins grew emotional Sunday describing the crew's performance. "This is a testament to experienced women doing their jobs," she said.
Sullenberger, 58, and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, 49, who themselves have a total of 50 years at the airline, deserve plenty of credit for steering Flight 1549 into the Hudson after hitting a flock of birds, said several attendants, including AFA-CWA leaders.
But after enduring years of pay cuts, layoffs and what they see as decreasing respect from the public, it's time to give the attendants their due, they said.
"Knowing what it entailed to get those people out safely just gives you chills," said retired flight attendant Jeannie Cox, 51, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who flew for 19 years.