CFE Survives 'Miracle on the Hudson' and Tells About It

By Scott Patterson

2010-MarchApril-Sp2Web-CFE Survives Hudson 
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III and Daniel Vinton, CFE

Daniel Vinton, CFE, had no reason to worry when he boarded his flight at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The weather was cold but clear that January afternoon, and he called his wife to let her know he would be home in time for dinner.

He was among 155 people on US Airways Flight 1549 making its regular service to Charlotte, N.C. After a short delay on the tarmac, the flight took off as usual. Nobody on the plane knew that within moments, all of their lives would be in immediate peril.   

“Everything was fine… and then all of a sudden, we heard a ‘boom,’” Vinton said. “The plane shook violently.” In the back of his mind, he was hoping they were just experiencing extreme turbulence – a hope that was dashed when another passenger called out that an engine was on fire. “I was just praying that the pilot was looking for a place to land.”

At the controls was veteran pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, who – along with his co-pilot – knew what the passengers did not: the plane had hit a large flock of birds, with catastrophic consequences. Both engines were out, and the big airliner had become a glider as it sped across the New York City skyline.

“There was very little talk in the cabin … people were just waiting quietly,” Vinton said. But as the seconds wore on, some passengers “were praying, some were texting (on cell phones). Some people were calling.” When Vinton looked out the window, he saw the plane was near the water, and realized it was too late to make a phone call. “I missed a chance to say goodbye to my wife,” he thought to himself.

“I threw my phone on the floor, thinking, ‘I’m not going to need it anymore.'”

When Sullenberger’s voice finally came on the cabin speaker, he was quick and to the point: “This is your captain speaking. Brace for impact.” At that moment, Vinton said, “I was just hoping to survive.”

He was also thinking about his family. Vinton describes those seconds as a seeming eternity, a time when he tried to keep his mind positive, yet couldn’t help but consider the worst.

“Mentally, I was saying my goodbyes,” Vinton said, still emotional at the remembrance of that moment. “I was hoping that, if I didn’t make it, my family would be able to move on as quickly as possible.”

These heart-wrenching thoughts borne of uncertainty and fear were interrupted by the sudden impact of the plane hitting the Hudson River. Reflecting on the instant the plane went in, Vinton said the crash landing was not nearly as rough as he would have expected. Amazingly, he described it as on par with “going over a speed bump,” but he said that he'd heard the impact was much worse for passengers in the back of the plane. After the initial impact, he said the jet came to rest upright and in one piece on the water.

That's when reality set in, and Vinton’s feelings of relief for being alive and uninjured were replaced with a new fear when he heard waves hitting the side of the plane. In his haste to get out of his seat and begin trying to get off the plane, he forgot his seat cushion – the “floatation device” described in every pre-flight safety briefing.

As the passengers clamored out of the exit and onto the wings of the plane, Vinton slid off into the frigid waters of the Hudson. Shivering with cold, several other people helped pull him back up on the wing. Next to him, some other passengers were struggling with a life raft. As the cold made his hands numb and coordination difficult, Vinton wondered if everyone would make it out of the water safely. Soon he saw boats approaching and thought to himself, “we might all survive this thing.”

Local commercial vessels were the first on the scene, followed by fire, police and U.S. Coast Guard rescue boats. After being on the wing for about 15 minutes, Vinton climbed a cargo net to safety onto the nearest boat.

“It was cold, but the instinct to survive just kicks in, and I got myself up the net and threw myself overboard into the boat,” Vinton said. He felt it was the timing of the rescue vessels that played a major part in getting everyone out alive. “If these boats didn’t show up as quickly as they did, it would have been a different story,” Vinton said.

In January 2010, Vinton, his fellow passengers, the crew and their families celebrated the one-year anniversary of the crash that forever bound them together by fate. Not only did Vinton survive the ordeal, but every person on the plane escaped in one piece when Sullenberger and his crew executed their textbook-perfect water ditching in the Hudson River. Sullenberger, praised for his calm nerves and grace under pressure, became a reluctant hero following the ordeal. 

Despite the miraculous ending to what could have been a tragic incident, there still have been challenges. Not only were several of the passengers and crew treated for injuries and hypothermia, but some of them have suffered the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, including panic attacks, sleeplessness, nightmares and flashbacks. Vinton said he still has to travel for his profession as a Certified Fraud Examiner (he joined the ACFE in 2001). This includes flying, something he still finds difficult. “My brain can’t shut it [the fear of crashing again] off,” he said. 

By all other measures, however, Vinton said he is doing “better than ever.” His focus in life has returned to the things most important to him: “family, friends – and don’t sweat the small stuff.” Since the crash, he has met Captain Sullenberger twice, and describes the pilot as a modest man who is “good as gold” in Vinton’s eyes. Yet he also realizes the happy ending was entirely due to a team effort.

“I want to make sure praise is given to the rest of the crew and first responders for their part in saving our lives,” Vinton said.

Another positive after-effect of the crash is that the bond that formed among the passengers that day is still strong. Many of them, including Vinton, collaborated on a book, "Miracle on the Hudson: The Survivors of Flight 1549," which was published in November.

Scott Patterson  is the ACFE's Media Relations Specialist. 

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