WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — In one form or another, I’ve covered transportation issues for The Record for the better part of 20 years. If you do that for as long as I have — first as a reporter, then as an editor — you wind up witnessing your share of tragedies.
In 1996, there was TWA Flight 800 with 212 on board. Just five years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, taking the lives of 2,996 people. A few months after that, American Airlines Flight 587 went down in Queens and 265 perished.
But on this weekend when many of us are reflecting on 9/11, an event so seared in our memories that it is hard to believe 15 years have passed, there is a powerful reminder that miracles do happen.
Sully, which opens nationwide in theaters Friday, is that reminder. The film is a stark look back at the decisions made by the crew of US Airways Flight 1549, better known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” And it’s a celebration of the enduring human spirit, captured in the images of 155 people standing on the wings of a plane floating in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009.
In the newsroom of The Record, it was just another Thursday — at least for the first part of the day.
The Bernie Madoff scandal had broken a few weeks earlier and the New York region was dealing with one of its coldest winters in years — the temperature that day was 21 degrees.
We had just finished the afternoon news meeting, trying to decide what stories would make the front page, what would lead the local section and reviewing our best photographs. The meeting ended around 3:30 p.m., just as Flight 1549 was coming to rest in the Hudson, a little bit north of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum.
As noted above, our newsroom had dealt with its share of plane crashes. But this was something new — a plane had hit the water.
Was it a small plane? A jetliner? How many were on board? Did anyone survive?
Could anyone survive?
As we have done for decades, and continue to do, The Record’s team of reporters, photographers, editors, graphic artists and designers jumped into action.
Reporters and photographers were dispatched to both sides of the Hudson, searching out spots where first responders might be stationed. Other reporters and editors in the office began working the phones, calling contacts at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, state officials on both sides of the Hudson and many, many others. Designers began ripping up the plans for the next day’s paper. Graphic artists began plotting the plane’s course and its final location. The Internet wasn’t nearly as vigorous as it is now, but it was hopping that day, as we and all other media scrambled to post the latest information as quickly as possible.
Most of all, though, we all worried about how many lives were lost.
There had been so much tragedy in our pages and on our screens over the years. Too many interviews with families that lost loved ones. Too many photos of people left behind. Too many memorials for the innocent.
We couldn’t fathom a plane that fell from the sky not bringing more death.
I had once heard a local politician — someone who was not happy about our coverage of his activities — tell a fellow journalist that “reporters wished for plane crashes.” It was a cruel comment. And it was horribly untrue.
Everyone in our newsroom was hoping for a miracle that day.
Then we saw the first images. The plane was intact: an Airbus A320 resting on the water, dozens of people lined up on the wing. There was clapping and cheering — and astonishment.
In an instant, certain death had turned into jubilation. Tragedy had turned into heroism.
But who was the hero? Who was the pilot?
One of the benefits of being around for a while is that, as a journalist, you develop a network of contacts. I was fortunate to have, and continue to have, well-placed sources throughout the aviation industry.
A phone call was made. A message left. And a few minutes passed.
Then my cellphone rang and all I heard was: “Chesley Sullenberger.”
It was an odd-sounding name, to be sure. But a quick computer check confirmed Sullenberger was a pilot — and a decorated, seasoned one at that.
The editor asked if my source was good, if I trusted the information. I did.
We posted it online.
From there, the stunning story took shape, as first responders plucked the passengers and crew from the wings and rafts and they began to tell their stories to a waiting press. Very soon, “Sully” Sullenberger became a national hero, a household name. And now, the subject of a movie.
It was tragedy turned into triumph. An uplifting story amid a dreary winter. All done on a wing and a prayer.