New Jet Mystery: Both Engines Missing, Flight Recorder Underwater

Amid search for engines, plan involves crane, barge, retrieving "black box."

January 16, 2009, 10:11 AM

Jan. 16, 2009— -- Key evidence of what caused a US Airways jetliner to make an emergency splash landing in the Hudson River Thursday remains hidden in the frigid waters and out of reach for investigators, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a news conference today.

Both the aircraft's engines and its flight recorder, or "little black box," have yet to be pulled from their watery resting place because of harsh weather and water conditions, NTSB member Kathyn "Kitty" Higgins said.

While investigators are using sonar to scour the Hudson for the plane's engines, which are believed to have detached after impact, the flight recorders, veritable treasure troves of in-flight information for the doomed plane's last moments, still rest in the tail section of the craft.

"We made an effort to try and remove the recorders while the plane was in the water," Higgins said. But the limited dive time caused by the extreme cold and powerful currents made retrieving the recorders "not possible."

The NTSB plans to hoist the plane from the water Saturday morning around 10 a.m. using cranes and to load it onto a barge, at which point the "black boxes" will be recovered, according to Higgins. Then the plane will be taken to a "secure" location where it will be examined by investigators.

The NTSB has not interviewed Capt. Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot of the aircraft and hero of the day, but plans to conduct that interview Saturday morning. The pilot took a congratulatory call from President Bush today.

"The pilot is the ultimate decision-maker. Why he made the choices he did is what we want to learn," Higgins said. "We want to look into everything that made yesterday so survivable."

Salvage crews discovered the engines were missing while trying to determine how to haul the jetliner out of the icy river.

Those engines likely hold important clues needed to make as accurate a determination as possible on what exactly caused the plane to lose power soon after accelerating off the runaway at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

The pilot reported two bird strikes shortly after takeoff and said that he was losing power. The Airbus 320's engine is built to withstand a 4-pound bird strike.

"One of the reasons we want to get the engines is because there will be physical evidence retained. ... If, in fact, there was any kind of damage from a bird, it will show up," Higgins said. "It's a very important piece of the puzzle."

In a quirky indication that the plane actually had good luck, the New York State Lottery said the numbers 1549 -- the flight's designation -- are sold out through next Tuesday night on the Win 4. Wagering on numbers 1549 has been cut off because the lottery has already reached the $5 million cap.

A day after the plane's spectacular splashdown opposite Manhattan's skyscrapers, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the fact that no one died in the crash into the icy river was more than luck and he handed out commendations for the miracle rescue of a jetliner.

He also said he was waiting to give a key to the city to the plane's pilot, Sullenberger.

Passengers agreed that "Sully," as he's known, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles were the heroes of the day. They also credited flight attendants Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent, for helping to make the plane's landing a success.

"They're the Tiger Woods of pilots," said passenger Matt Kane. "Unbelievable."

An aviation source who has been with the plane's crew told ABC News the pilots are resting.

"They are incredibly calm, very professional, not in shock whatsoever. They are handling this better than most people should," the source said.

As the rescued passengers finally stopped shivering, stories of terror and bravery from the drama emerged.

The rescue began at 3:29 p.m. when Capt. Vince Lombardi of a New York Waterway ferry noticed something odd in the water.

"I turned to my deckhand, and I said, that's an odd-looking boat. He said, 'I think that's an airplane,'" Lombardi said.

With his own passengers on board, Lombardi sped to the crash site. Just three minutes after impact, Lombardi nosed his ferry close to the plane.

"I went to the wings first, because I noticed those people were in knee-deep water there and I know hypothermia would have set in," he said. "A few people were cheering. Some were crying, 'Get me out of the water, it's cold.'"

Lombardi loaded 56 passengers on his boat.

Moments later, other ferries arrived. Vincent Lucante's boat pulled the youngest passengers, two babies, from a life raft.

"We brought them up to the second deck of the ferry where it's warmest and they started to cry, which was the best sound we could hear," Lucante said.

John Rizzo was on the first fireboat to arrive -- just seven minutes after impact.

"You don't have time to really think about the situation until after everything's over. I just think it's a miracle," he said.

Flames, Smoke, Then Frigid Water

Vince Lombardi said the weather was in the teens and the water temperature hovered just above freezing during the rescue

"If we weren't there in another few minutes ... they could have died," Lombardi said.

Everybody was evacuated from the plane within 45 minutes. Of the 155 people onboard, no one died and the most serious injury was a deep laceration on the leg of one of the flight attendants. A 9-month-old baby and an 89-year-old grandmother were among the survivors. Only a handful of passengers remain hospitalized.

"We'd just like to say that we are very grateful that everyone is off the airplane safely," said Lorrie Sullenberger, the pilot's wife. "That was really what my husband asked to convey to everyone."

The "Miracle on the Hudson" unfolded just minutes after the US Airways took off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., Thursday. Moments after becoming airborne about 3:30 p.m., the pilot of the Airbus 320 reported a double bird strike and that he was losing power.

Sullenberger was flying over congested Bronx neighborhoods when he realized he couldn't make it to nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. On tapes released of the pilot's conversation with controllers, Sullenberger is heard to say simply, "unable," when directed to Teterboro.

Instead, he turned the jetliner south. Clearing the George Washington Bridge by about 900 feet, Sullenberger guided the gliding plane into a picture-perfect splash down, keeping the craft afloat and both wings out of the water.

"That's a 10 on airmanship," said Capt. John Cox, a former US Airways pilot. "It requires everything for a pilot to do that."

Within minutes, ferries, tugs and emergency craft converged on the stricken jet and scooped up the shivering passengers.

Those aboard the jetliner remember a short flight that quickly turned harrowing. There was a loud bang, a smell of smoke in the cabin, and an eerie silence as the engines died away. Then the sickening descent as the plane glided past tall buildings, then smaller buildings and trees before hitting the water.

"I heard the explosion," passenger Dave Sanderson told "Good Morning America." He knew that wasn't good.

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

'I Didn't Want to Drown There'

When she got on the plane, Irina Levshina said 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, it's 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.

Hope for any reprieve from a crash ended when Sullenberger announced over the plane's intercom, "Brace for impact."

"It was intense. It was intense," said passenger Jeff Kolodjay, of Norwalk, Conn., of that moment.

Kane told "GMA" that he bent forward to be ready for impact.

"I hit my head on the seat in front of me ... and you say all right, I'm still here," said Kane. "And then the water starts coming in pretty fast. And it was cold. So it woke you up pretty quickly. You get out of the shock and start moving forward."

Kane said water was quickly up to his waist, but he salvaged his BlackBerry and texted a message to a friend, "I'm on the Hudson River."

At first, things stayed calm inside the cabin.

"It was a controlled, you know, discussion," said Sanderson. "Most people were paying attention to instructions."

"Everyone was kind of orderly," said a chilled Kolodjay, who ended up wearing a jacket given to him by "GMA's" Chris Cuomo. "I kept saying, 'Relax, relax. Women and children first.' And then, it just started filling with water, quick."

The water terrified Levshina, who was stuck in the last row of the plane.

"I thought I'd be the last one out of the plane. That was really scary," she 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 [yelling]. I didn't want to drown there," Levshina said.

People began climbing over seats to get to exits, but the exits in the rear wouldn't open.

During those brief moments inside, there were scenes that were poignant and ridiculous.

What is stuck in Sanderson's mind are two women, the first a mother with her infant.

"I saw her walking up the aisle. She had the baby close to her chest. When she got out on the wing, she was still with the baby close to her chest," Sanderson said.

Woman Refused to Leave Without Luggage

And then there was the woman who refused to leave without her luggage.

"There was somebody who wanted to have her luggage," Sanderson said with a chuckle. "We got the luggage out. It is still probably floating in the water right now."

Barry Leonard said he was sitting in the first row and was right next to an emergency exit. A flight attendant told him to head for the door and jump.

"When I got to the door, the slide that normally would come out wasn't there yet," he told "GMA" from Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J., where he was being treated for a cracked sternum. "But they still said jump into the water. I had no idea what to do. ... I jumped in."

Leonard quickly realized that he wouldn't last long in the frigid water.

"I started swimming, but we were in the middle of the Hudson, obviously. And as the water was cold, I knew there was no way for me to make it to shore. So I turned around and the raft was full," he said.

Somehow he eventually got into a raft and was painfully cold, and a pilot gave him his own shirt.

"He said, 'Sir, please take off your shirt and I'll give you mine,'" Leonard said.

"I actually still have it this morning. I'm not going to give it up," he said, smiling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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