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Brace For Impact: Miracle on the Hudson

by Dorothy Firman & Kevin Quirk


It is better to give than to receive

In Barry’s 5th Avenue office, I am greeted warmly by everyone, from the doorman to the receptionist to Barry himself. It is clear, before I even meet Barry Leonard, that the people around him care deeply for him. After the crash and the week’s recuperation (pretty much forced on him by friends and doctors) Barry was ready to get back to work. Commuting every week from Charlotte to New York, he did so again, “ready to put this accident behind me.” When he stepped off the elevator (sixth floor) there was a huge poster, with notes and pictures and signatures of his many employees, coworkers and friends. Barry was moved, close to tears, but more deeply, he was moved closer again to his deep appreciation of all the people he cares about, all who have helped him, all those he loves, all those whose lives he has been touched by. His office staff also gave him a plaque with a picture of Lou Gehrig and the famous words he said when diagnosed with a debilitating and ultimately fatal illness: “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Barry thinks of himself that way, as one of the luckiest men alive. Barry, as a CEO and businessman at the top of his field, is really, in the end, a people person. His business successes can be attributed to many things, most notably hard work, strong will, and a clear eye on the prize. But more than all of this, I believe, Barry is where he is and who he is, because he cares. It’s easy for Barry to note who has helped him and given to him, and harder for him to acknowledge his own role as a good man. I push him from time to time to find out more. “You have a lot of heroes,” I say. “Who are you a hero to?” Barry is slow to respond to this particular question, but over our time together, I find out about a few of the people he has touched.

“I was a taker for 35 years, but now I give back,” he said. I think he was always a giver. It just took time for Barry to notice it. This accident has rocked the boat for Barry, as it has for so many, but it has sent him back, more deeply, into core values: values honed over a lifetime. While I was talking to him, he excused himself to take a call on his cell phone. It was his daughter, flying home. “I love you,” he said as he ended the call. Apologizing to me for our interruption, I reminded him that he was keeping his values straight right then and there. His daughter was more important. Funny, when I canceled our first meeting because my sister was in the hospital, he said the exact same thing to me: “Your sister is more important.” And weeks later when we met, he remembered my sister in the hospital and asked how she was.

By the time I leave his office several hours later, we have laughed together, shed a few tears and talked about what is really important. We talked about family and heroes, about work ethic and gratitude, about giving and receiving. I am touched by this good man. As I get up to leave, we start to shake hands, but quickly it becomes a hug.

( - Dorothy).

Barry’s Story

I knew it was going to be a cold, snowy day on January 15th. Funny thing: I’d changed the dress policy in my NY company a few years ago. Jeans were now okay. That was a new idea for me, but folks loved it. Me, I never once wore jeans, until that day. But the weather was nasty. I was walking through the city a lot on my way to the airport, so I put them on instead of my usual suit. Employees who saw me that day started clapping. “You’ve finally joined the 21st Century!” I’ve never worn them to work again. Don’t think I ever will.

I knew the plane would be late. I’m known as a road warrior, since I take over 100 flights a year. Boarding, I recognized the captain and some of the crew. I was a regular on this flight. So were they. At 3:37 the wheels were up and 90 seconds later, we were traveling at 250 miles per hour at an altitude of 3,000 feet. The plane shuttered. There was the smell of fire. There was little talking throughout the plane. My seat-mate, Paul, said it looked like the engine was going to fall off. Not thinking clearly, I undid my seat belt to look around. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” I said to him. “The engine is not falling off, but it’s not running either!” None of us really knew that we’d lost both engines. I knew we were in trouble, though. The plane banked sharp left and by the time we cleared the George Washington Bridge, we were at 900 feet. Right about then, the captain made his first and only announcement. “THIS IS THE CAPTAIN. BRACE FOR IMPACT!!!” Having put my seat belt back on, I put my head down as instructed. I heard later that air traffic thought he was kidding when he told them, “We’ll be in the Hudson.” I don’t think Sully kids about things like that.

All I could think about was my conversation with God, the day before. My wife was getting test results back for the possibility of breast cancer. I was at work while we were waiting for the results. I had a hard time waiting to hear. I went into my office and closed my door. God, please let my wife be okay. If you are going to take someone, please take me. When she called to say she was okay, I wept. Now, as the plane went down, I was facing my death, the death I had offered to God in exchange for my wife. I smiled to myself: I guess I’m going to get what I asked for. I was totally at peace. When Larry King asked me about that experience of peace, just a few days after the crash, I wasn’t ready to share my private story with anyone. Now I am.

I could see the Manhattan skyline as we went down. Paul grabbed my arm, drawing me back from my internal world. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?” he asked. When we hit, at 150 miles per hour, the impact was horrific as the plane slowed in seconds to a complete stop, groaning as it did. I looked out the window and all I could see was water. I thought we had gone under. Very quickly I could see light and buildings as the spray washed down the sides of the plane. Captain Sullenberger came out of the cockpit and yelled EVACUATE. As I got up and started to move I looked back at my seat to see if my body was still there. The scene from Ghost where Patrick Swayze sees his own body came right into my mind. I had yet to have any experience of real fear of dying, but I was glad to see that my body was still with me.

The raft at our exit didn’t inflate and the attendant yelled: JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! And I did…into the Hudson, 36 degrees, breaking my sternum in the fall. This was the first time I was worried. I knew I’d last about five minutes in the water. With water that cold, hypothermia sets in fast and I was also struggling with the pain in my chest. I swam to the raft that was now deployed and I have no idea how I got in. But coming out of the water, soaking wet and near to hypothermia, I did get the shirt off the back of the traveling pilot. He said, so kindly to me, “Here, Sir, you need to get warm.” And he gave me his shirt. He put his arm around me and told me to do the same.

When a ferry came near we asked for a knife to cut us free, so we wouldn’t go down with the plane. Cold as I was, I felt myself part of a group effort. I remember a girl who was gray and despondent and couldn’t get up the ladder to the ferry. I pushed with all my remaining strength and someone from above pulled. She made it. And so did I.

I was in bad shape, though I didn’t realize it. Dr. Hilda Roque-Dieguez, the doctor who was at the site of the rescue, told me later that I was lying on the floor when she first got to me. I have no memory of that time. She worried that I’d nicked my heart. My blood pressure was high; I was close to having a stroke. They rushed me by ambulance to the hospital and in the ER I heard them say “four milligrams morphine.” That caused me my second round of worry. Something must be wrong if they’re doing that. The last real fear? Seeing a chaplain outside of my room, talking to a nurse. Uh-oh, what does that mean?

Seeing Hilda and the hospital staff, six months later, at a gratitude luncheon I co-hosted with Dave Sanderson at Palisades Medical Center, and going back to those rooms, saying thank you and hugging every person who was there for me, has brought me full circle. From being at death’s door, to feeling my heart open as I expressed my gratitude, this was big for me. How often do we get to go back to where something bad happened, and make it all right? I think it meant a lot to them, too. Dr. Roque-Dieguez was my angel. I didn’t know it at the time, but she came to the scene, uncalled. She looked to the care of everyone, she found me­¾in bad trouble¾and moved the system along so quickly that I was hospitalized (and saved) within minutes. She told a reporter at the luncheon, “This is the greatest gift a doctor can receive. I’m just happy.” What could be better than being able to give back a little bit?

I knew, even in high school, that my life’s work was to leave this world a better place than I found it. If I think back to my childhood I always had visions for a better life, a better world. One of my heroes was Mighty Mouse… Here I come to save the day. He was just a little guy doing great things. But I also loved Elvis Presley and that was about passion. And daring to be different. Being someone who helps and being someone with passion, those two values have really defined the purpose of my life.

Dorothy Firman is the New York Times bestselling co-author of Chicken Soup for the Mother and Daughter Soul, among numerous books. She has worked in the field of psychology and counseling for over thirty years. Kevin Quirk is a former journalist with The Charlotte Observer, among other newspapers, and a prolific ghostwriter and editor.

# # #


“Miracle on the Hudson” Survivors Share Their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life

Authors: Dorothy Firman and Kevin Quirk

Publication Date: January 2010

Price: $14.95; Original Trade Paperback

ISBN: 978-0-7573-1357-8

Publisher: HCI Books

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