Crash survivor relates experience

Motivational speaker Dave Sanderson speaks at Friday's Ladies' Horticultural Luncheon in Winchester about his experience surviving an emergency plan landing on the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey on Jan. 15, 2009.

WINCHESTER — Dave Sanderson admitted he thought of the Titanic on the day his airplane made a crash landing on the Hudson River.

Fortunately, though, the passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 experienced a very different outcome than those on the ill-fated luxury ship that struck an iceberg and sank in 1912.

“Instead, a miracle did occur,” Sanderson told those assembled for the Ladies’ Horticultural Luncheon on Friday morning in Winchester.

There were 150 people on the plane when it crashed on Jan. 15, 2009, Sanderson said. All but 10 walked away without injury. Those injured were transported to hospitals in New York City and New Jersey. All survived.

“That’s how it became known as the Miracle on the Hudson,” Sanderson said.

After returning to his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sanderson, a 1979 graduate of James Wood High School in Winchester, said he almost immediately started getting requests to speak about his experience.

That Sunday in 2009 his pastor asked him to speak at a men’s breakfast at the Methodist church he attended. He was stunned when 500-600 people showed up to hear him talk.

He spoke on the terrifying experience of being on a plane he knew was going down, but also on the impact that experience had on his faith. He was raised by his mother to believe in God. On that day, though his mother had died in 1997, he heard his mother’s voice speaking words of encouragement and telling him how to survive.

Sanderson recalled staying behind while other passengers climbed onto their seats to avoid the icy water and made their way out of the plane. He said it didn’t occur to him to go that route.

“If you do the right thing, God will take care of you,” he remembered his mother’s voice telling him.

So he waited in the back of the plane and helped rescue others before attempting his own escape. Then he climbed out onto the wing of the plane, but there wasn’t enough room. He had to wait a good six or seven minutes, waist-deep in near-freezing water, for help to come.

Admittedly, help arrived almost immediately, and on Friday at the luncheon The Women’s Auxiliary of the Virginia State Horticultural Society holds every year during the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, he praised first responders from New York and New Jersey for their quick response times.

A ferry boat began helping people aboard, but when a tugboat briefly collided with the plane and Sanderson felt water splash over his back, he knew he needed help quickly or else he might freeze to death or drown.

He recalled jumping off the wing of the plane and swimming to the nearest boat, where he found safety.

The entire ordeal from when the plane took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to when he arrived at the hospital in Hoboken, New Jersey, took only about 30 minutes, he told the rapt crowd, earning from them expressions of amazement.

“And I wasn’t scheduled to be on the flight,” he said. Intended for a later flight, he said he sought an earlier flight hoping to get home to his family earlier. “So I truly believe I was meant to be on that flight for a reason.”

Recalling when he first gave this speech at his church in Charlotte, he said a listener told him afterward how it affected her.

Previously uncertain in her belief of God, she told him, “You are physical evidence that there is a God, and he does perform miracles.”

Glad to return to his hometown for Apple Blossom, he said his speech was appropriate for the festival “cause this is a hopeful time.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com