The last man out of the plane that crash-landed Jan. 15, 2009, in the Hudson River helped save 155 lives.
Dave Sanderson wasn’t supposed to be on that plane, but a rearranged schedule had him on an earlier flight than planned.
“I truly believe God wanted me on that plane for a reason,” he told guests at the Seventh Annual Boys and Girls Club of Bulloch County Steak and Burger Dinner held Thursday night at Statesboro’s First Baptist Church.
After takeoff, Sanderson’s flight took a frightening turn when the plane collided with a flock of geese, taking out both engines. Sanderson could see one engine in flames, but he had no idea both engines were on fire.
“I heard the explosion about 60 seconds after takeoff, and saw the fire,” he said.
Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, using skills learned in 40 years of flight experience including a stint as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, glided the plane into the Hudson River near Manhattan just six minutes after takeoff. The impact with the water skinned off the bottom of the plane, and water began seeping in immediately, Sanderson said.
“It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” he said.
No one seemed to realize what had happened, but when reality set in, “The first thing I did was pray,” he said.
The impact caused seats to break, which provided many the opportunity to escape more quickly than if they had all been forced to use the aisle. “That’s how most people got out,” Sanderson said.
He said as he joined the exodus to the wings, “My mom got in my head. She passed away in 1997. She said, ‘If you do the right thing, God will take care of you.’ The right thing was to help other people.”
He spoke of the ordeal, how he encouraged a mother clinging to her baby, frozen with fear, to move and hand her baby to safety. Then he shared how it felt to be in the plane, standing in freezing water, unable to get out because there was no room on the wings.
When Sanderson was finally pulled to safety, the last one off the plane, his adrenaline ebbed and he lost his strength. His blood pressure skyrocketed, his temperature dropped and he suffered hypothermia, and he described how medical responders helped save his life after he had done his part to help save 154 others.
“Having someone rescue you in a plane crash, in ice cold water, in a couple of minutes, is a miracle,” he said, marveling that the entire ordeal took less than an hour.
He remembered a man in a dry suit, holding a laptop above his head, who had escaped harm in the crash. The man handed him his iPhone and said, “Call your wife.” When Sanderson did, he left a message, which was intercepted by his daughter. She turned on CNN and that is how his family learned of his miracle, he said.
Sanderson is a spokesman for the American Red Cross, having been impressed by the organization’s response to the crash survivors.
“That’s where my miracle turned into my mission,” he said.
He has also authored a book, “Brace for Impact.”
Sanderson’s speech was during the annual fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Bulloch County, which serves 400 children.