How surviving the 'Miracle on the Hudson' changed my life: COLUMN

PHOTO: Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, left, and Barry Leonard are seen in this undated photo.PlayBarry Leonard
WATCH 2009: Captain Sully Sullenberger recounts his decision to land his plane into the Hudson

On Jan. 15, 2019, we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight that brought hope to a nation embroiled in the Great Recession.

To the 155 passengers and crew, as well as the hundreds of first responders, it gives us a moment to reflect on the impact this event has had on our lives. Like most people, children and grandchildren were born, there were weddings and funerals for those we love, marriages and divorces, and just plain life.

The difference is that we somehow survived this incredible, unprecedented event. We are humbled every day by this bonus of a second life. "The afterlife of near death," as one journalist called it.

Many of the passengers say they are turning 10 years old on Jan. 15 in our second life. We refer to each other as a second family. We are from all sides of our polarized society and political beliefs, but we are always there for each other. We would have never met each other. It proves that human decency and aid will win out in the end.

PHOTO: Barry Leonard is seen after dedicating a library for Masai children, Aug. 2013.Barry Leonard
Barry Leonard is seen after dedicating a library for Masai children, Aug. 2013.

My narrative is one of the 155 astounding accounts reflecting on the last 10 years. With me, there was an urgency afterwards for creating my bucket list and aggressively pursuing each item on the list. Virtually all of the entries were comprised of experiences – none involved wealth or trophies.

My son and I summited Mount Kilimanjaro and went on safaris. But the high point of the trip was taking a Jeep on some cow and goat trails to a school somewhere in Tanzania. We had helped donate a library to the children of the Maasai tribe. The look on their faces was the high point of this trip -- and of my life.

My daughter and I hiked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain in November when we were mostly alone. It was a bonding, spiritual trip for both of us. And my wife and I stayed on an elephant sanctuary for several days getting to live in the environment of these awesome mammals. It only confirmed my love for elephants and what we need to do to protect them.

Giving back became a mantra for my life. There is much I have done with the help of others and much more I plan to do. One personal way of achieving this was having an annual reunion/celebration in New York City for the passengers, crew and first responders. It has given us a forum to talk about how Flight 1549 continues to impact our lives, as only we would know; to toast to life and those we love.

This year’s attendees will consist of passengers with some of their families, the air traffic controller and first responders, such as the doctor who cared for many of us at the ferry terminal and in the hospital, as well as ferry boat captains, a diver, NYC firefighters, a photographer and Captain Sully (by phone).

PHOTO: Barry Leonard and his son Matthew are seen after hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, Aug. 2013.Barry Leonard
Barry Leonard and his son Matthew are seen after hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, Aug. 2013.

In the coming months my family will travel to India to meet the Dalai Lama, a trip that has been five years in the making. I am also going to conquer one of my great fears by jumping out of a plane at around 12,000 feet. The only other time I jumped out of a plane was from five feet above the Hudson River. My chance of survival was much less then.

I have started writing a book about my life. I was so inspired by J.D. Vance’s book "Hillbilly Elegy" that I wanted to pen a similar account of my life. I also bought my prized guitar and want to write some lyrics and put them to music. My wife is going to teach in China for a month this summer and then we are going to travel around some places in this beautiful, ancient country.

The reason I can spend so much time on my bucket list is that I made a promise to myself after the flight to retire before I turned 65. I achieved this over a year ago.

I want to thank everyone who is embracing the 10-year anniversary of the "Miracle on the Hudson." And I especially want to thank my mom, who has been there for me every day for the past 10 years. We provide each other with a shoulder to cry on or a hug and smile when needed. My mother understands better than anyone the 10-year bonus of life my fellow survivors and I have been given. Thank you, Maw!

Barry Leonard was one of 155 passengers and crew aboard US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. All passengers and crew survived.

Watch “Good Morning America” Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 7 a.m. ET for Amy Robach’s exclusive interview with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

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