Nine months after skidding to salvation on the icy Hudson River, passengers of Charlotte-bound Flight 1549 have their say in a book being released today, one that contains an intriguing hypothesis:
A key reason that evacuation of the jetliner went so smoothly was because it was largely populated by Southerners.
While there were sporadic acts of ugliness in the chaos after the splashdown - at least two passengers said their seat-cushion floatation devices were snatched by others - an inbred politeness seemed to be at work, says William Prochnau, author of "Miracle on the Hudson: The Survivors of Flight 1549."
"There's something to that," says Prochnau, who assembled the stories of 118 of the 150 passengers for the book co-written by his wife, Laura Parker. Prochnau said in researching the book, they learned that whenever someone felt a rising sense of panic, others in the group settled them genteelly and guided them through the ordeal. About 100 of the passengers were from the South.
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Even when the ferries pulled up to the bobbing fuselage to pluck passengers from wings and rafts, there was a cry of "women and children first," a gesture some female passengers later considered an arcane courtesy, Prochnau says.
"Certainly children first and those who needed assistance," Theresa Leahy, a Bank of America executive aboard the flight, says in the book.
"I appreciate the humanity that's happening there, that people are putting someone else ahead of themselves. But in an evacuation situation where time could be lost or other things could happen? ... You have to do the thing that's most efficient."
Other tales in the book include how the cabin filled with a putrid smell of burned geese and fuel after the impact and how a cacophony of prayers broke out - Christian, Muslim, Jewish - during the descent.
Mike Kollmansberger, an evangelical Christian from Lexington, says in the book he was certain they would all perish, but he was at peace: "I'm going to hit this water and go see the lord Jesus in 15 seconds."
Lori Lightner of Tega Cay recalled thinking before the crash that her husband should collect double on the life insurance because she was on a work trip for Belk, the department store chain. "Maybe it's a strange thing to do, thinking about your insurance when you are dying, but I'm a practical person."
Spate of 1549 books
"Miracle on the Hudson" was originally set to be released in November but was moved up to coincide with today's debut of the autobiography of Capt. Sully Sullenberger's "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters."
A third major book on the accident, "Fly by Wire," by author and pilot William Langewiesche, is due out in November and is expected to focus on the aeronautics in the crash.
Sullenberger's book is already at Charlotte-area bookstores, though "Miracle" is en route and may not arrive until midweek, a spot check showed Monday.
Prochnau, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a former reporter for The Washington Post, said he was signed to write the book after his publisher, Ballantine Books, reached agreement with a passengers' group for their stories. Passengers will share in the book's profits, typical for autobiographical works.
He and Parker, a former USA Today national correspondent who once covered aviation for the Post, spent six months interviewing those aboard the jetliner, though the flight crew - pondering book deals of their own - wouldn't participate.
Some passengers, including five foreigners, could not be contacted or declined to participate, Prochnau says. "The most common reason was, 'I don't want to have this airplane crash become a defining thing in my life.'"
At times, he said, passengers gave conflicting versions of what happened, including the ruckus in the rear of the aircraft where water rushed in chest-deep and there was an effort to open the rear door. Such accounts were impossible to reconcile - understandable, he said, because memories get fuzzy when "people were terrified for their lives."
Memories of crash
Recollections of dozens of Charlotte-area passengers are spelled out in the book, including the story of Staples executive Denise Lockie, who was still hunched in a brace position in seat 2C when people began exiting the fuselage.
Mark Hood, a medical equipment salesman in 2A, tapped her on the shoulder.
"Are we in heaven?" she asked him.
"No, and I'm no angel," Hood replied. "Come on, we've got to go."
Barry Leonard, president of a bed and bath products firm, paused before exiting to look at his seat. "I wanted to make sure my body wasn't still there."
Jim Whitaker, a veteran flier, recalled turning to the slight woman in the next seat who was holding her 9-month-old son and offering to cradle the infant in the moments before the crash.
"She looked at me in an incredibly distraught and human moment and said something to the effect, 'Are you sure?' And I said, 'Absolutely,' and held out my arms."
Whitaker, at 6-foot-1, put the infant across his chest like a football and braced for impact.
"He was quiet as a church mouse," Whitaker recalled.