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Hudson plane crash survivor still ‘braced for impact’

A UMNS Report
By Reed Galin*
Jan. 19, 2010 | CHARLOTTE, N.C. (UMNS)

“Brace for impact” could have been the last words Dave Sanderson heard as U.S. Air Flight 1549 descended toward the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009.

Many Americans know those three words as Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger’s simple, by-the-book instruction to calm his passengers moments before the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when the veteran pilot brought the jet down safely, skimming it atop the icy New York river.

Dave Sanderson, survivor of U.S. Air
Flight 1549, today gives motivational speeches about miracles and
approaching life always "braced for
impact.” UMNS Photos by Reed Galin.

Images of passengers and crew climbing out of the plane and onto the wings, awaiting the rescue that arrived in moments, beamed around the world.

Given a second chance at life, Sanderson has vowed to make the most of it. That sentiment drives him to climb, sometimes with admitted fear, back onto planes regularly so he can deliver motivational speeches about miracles.

He, his friends and family know the Charlotte, N.C., businessman has changed. His pastor at Providence United Methodist, the Rev. Ken Carter, says the time spent on the wings of the plane and in the icy water itself was really a baptism for his friend.

“He went into the water and came out of the water a different person. Dave has always been a person searching for meaning and purpose in life … and he’s been open to sharing that profound experience with others. … I think he’s been a source of strength and renewal to a lot of other people.”

While Sanderson admits to that new purpose, that passion, he also remembers the fear of the moments that preceded that rebirth.

“I knew we lost an engine ’cause I looked out the window and I saw the flames. I smelled a different smell, but I didn’t know the same thing happened on the other side of the plane … so, when Captain Sullenberger said, ‘Brace for impact’ … I felt I’ve got another maybe minute-and-a-half left of my life, and I better get squared pretty quick.”

‘God has given me a pathway’

He wasn’t supposed to be on the plane that left LaGuardia and was bound for Charlotte when birds knocked out both engines. His business meeting in New York had ended early and so he caught an earlier flight home. It led to the experience that has propelled him to almost constant barnstorming in the year since, reliving the miracle and what it did for him in speeches for The Red Cross and other nonprofits.

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He talks about the plane’s belly hitting the river, icy water flooding the passenger compartment, and the realization—as Sullenberger and crew made sure all passengers escaped safely—that he might actually survive.

Sanderson talks about the bright light that shined through the window into the flooding cabin and how his mother’s “voice” guided him. “In my head, the whole time I was trying to get off the plane, (I heard), ‘Do the right thing. God will take care of you.’ That’s something she said to me when I was a little kid … and it did play out that way.”

Sanderson helped other passengers onto the wings as the jet drifted downriver and he was one of the last passengers out. Rescue boats—river ferries—arrived within minutes. Everyone survived. Sanderson, suffering hypothermia, was one of the few who required even brief hospitalization. “Once I got to shore, I couldn’t even feel anything; people had to carry me to the triage center and then the hospital. At that point, God took care of me. I didn’t really understand how bad off I was until later.”

Since that time, while telling that story, going about his business or spending time with his friends and family, he admits he’s lived like a man with no time to waste. There are endless people to talk to, to help, and he views his second chance as a time with profound responsibilities.

“My life became more evident that day as to (what) my purpose on Earth was,” he says. “God has given me a pathway to share what happened to me.”

‘We’ll figure it out’

Afterward, the media wanted to talk to survivors about the facts of the crash and survival. But to Sanderson, a literal “miracle” had taken place on the Hudson, and he wanted to talk about its meaning to him. He began speaking at churches, including his own. Active in the congregation before the crash, he found his spirituality more focused. He says emerging from the Hudson gave him a ministry and an obligation to share the message of faith and hope he believes his survival illustrates.

Sanderson says he has new purpose in life.


He wastes no time or energy guarding his thoughts. He speaks matter-of-factly about nightly dreams about the bone-biting cold of that day. He admits that traveling almost every week to share his experience, along with additional travel required by his job as a sales executive for Oracle Corp., is not always appreciated by his wife and four children.

But he says life is better, because he appreciates each day.

“One of my new phrases in life is ‘We’ll figure it out,’” he says. “I can’t say it hasn’t happened since, but before, I got upset over little things all the time. Now, when something happens, whether it’s business or family, it’s OK. We’ll figure it out.”

The other new phrase in Dave Sanderson’s life is “Brace for impact,” the words he thought would be the last he’d ever hear. Now he thinks of those words as a motto telling him always to be ready for what comes next in life.

*Galin is a freelance video producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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