Treacherous Conditions Complicate Recovery of Plane

Crane is raising plane onto barge so investigators can recover "black box."

January 16, 2009, 10:11 AM

Jan. 17, 2009— -- Engineering crews began the painstaking process of lifting a downed jetliner from the frigid Hudson River in New York City this evening, and investigators revealed new details about the flight's chilling last minutes before the crash.

With floodlights lighing the area in lower Manhattan, workers were planning to lift the fuselage of the US Airways jet one foot at a time, to allow the water that filled the plane to drain out as it is removed from the icy river.

The removal of the plane originally was to have begun at 10 a.m. this morning, but the effort was complicated by ice floes moving down the river, extremely low temperatures and a strong river current that pinned half of the plane beneath pilings at the pier where it was towed Thursday.

US Airways flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River Thursday.

At a news conference held by the National Transportation Safety Board this evening, investigators said the pilot and copilot described how moments after takeoff from Laguardia Airport, they looked up and saw they had flown into a flock of geese.

Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying the plane at takeoff, told investigators that when he saw the birds coming he made a note of it. When Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger looked up, he told investigators, he saw the windscreen suddenly filled with big, dark-brown birds.

The next thing the crew knew, NTSB board member Kitty Higgins said, there was a thump, the smell of burning birds, and silence as both aircraft engines cut out, according to The Associated Press.

Today divers discovered that the right engine was still attached to the plane. Previously, investigators believed that both engines had been sheered from the wings during the emergency landing.

As one team of investigators used sonar to scour the Hudson for the missing left engine, another prepared to draw the 80-ton plane from the frigid waters with the use of a crane and to carefully place it on a barge, Higgins said at a news conference Friday.

Once the aircraft is on the barge, officials will remove the flight recorders or the "little black box," a veritable treasure trove of in-flight information for the doomed plane's last moments, from the tail section. The plane will then be taken to a "secure" location for examination.

"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 began interviewing Sullenberger, the pilot of the aircraft and hero of the day, today. Sullenberger took a congratulatory call from President Bush Friday and has developed a national fanbase since his expert splash landing kept the 155 people onboard alive and largely uninjured.

In a frantic 911 call, an unidentified man from the Bronx described the remarkable splash landing, the Associated Press reported.

"Oh my God! It was a big plane. I heard a big boom just now. We looked up and then plane came straight over us and it was turning," the caller said.

"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."

Investigators are interested in the plane's engines because they 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.

Sullenberger 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 twist on luck and public response to the incident, 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."

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

The "Miracle on the Hudson" unfolded just minutes after the US Airways took off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C.

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 splashdown, 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.

Nightmare in a Text Message

Steve Collins was at the gym when he got a four-letter text message that nearly shattered his world: "My plane is crashing." Those four words were the only ones his wife Vallie had time to send -- not even enough time for "I love you."

Today on "Good Morning America" the Collins recounted their harrowing tale of terror for Vallie inside the plane and for Steve as he watched helplessly as events unfolded.

"I wanted him to know I was thinking of him and the kids if that was my last thought," Vallie said. "I didn't want this time of ambiguity of 'Was she on it? Was she not?'"

After Steve got the message, he said his heart stopped.

"[It was] an almost out of body experience not knowing whether she's alive or hurt or dead... Then she calls, she's borrowing a Port Authority person's phone. Then it was great," he said.

During that time of terrifying silence before her call, Vallie said she did what she could to help another mother after water started pouring into the back of the plane where she was sitting and got the little girl off the plane.

"I put myself in that mother's position and said 'I would want help if my kids were on the plane,'" Vallie said. "She helped keep me calm, that little girl did. As a mother I thought 'I have to keep it together so she's not more scared than she already was.'"

Survivor Irina Levshina also found comfort with her fellow passengers.

When she got on the plane, 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.

"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.

'I Jumped In'

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.

Strangers Pitch in for Quick, Effective Watery Rescue

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.

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.

"This is a story of heroes, straight out of a movie script," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday. "But if it had been a movie, people wouldn't have believed it... It just goes to show, if we work together we can do anything."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events