Josh Peltz, 39
Flight: US Airways flight 1549
Crash landing: The Hudson river, New York
Date: 15 January 2009
I’d like to think anyone in my seat would have done the same thing. I was in 10F, the window seat of the emergency aisle, on the right side of the plane. I fly for business every other week and I try to get a seat with extra leg room. I’m not a nervous flyer; in fact, I was napping as we took off. A few minutes after takeoff came a loud explosion like a car backfiring. The plane jolted and there was a smell of burning machinery. Everybody gasped and there were a few screams.
Looking out of the window, I could see us rollicking back and forth; we were so high up, the houses looked like toys and the cars like ants. But we weren’t falling, so I thought, “OK, one of our engines has blown, but we have another engine, we’re returning to La Guardia, the pilot has everything under control.” I didn’t realise that both engines had failed.
It was eerily quiet – everyone was assessing the situation. It soon became obvious we weren’t going to La Guardia, we were headed for the water, and I started thinking this could be it. I thought about my wife, Tesa, and our two children, Adeline, nearly three, and Zy, who was 12 weeks, and I tried to make peace. Then I heard the announcement, “This is the captain, brace for impact”, and everything suddenly got very clear. I had to stop thinking about death and start thinking about what I was going to do once the pilot landed in the water. “You sat in this seat,” I thought, “you’ve got to get this door open.”
At about 300ft, I started reading the instructions. There were six steps, and I read them two or three times, testing myself on each step and trying to envision myself opening the door. We were headed for the water fast. I cinched my seat belt tighter and tighter, and balled myself up over my overcoat.
Then we hit the water. It felt like the worst car wreck you could imagine. We bounced and skidded to a halt. A lot of people had bloodied noses or eyes from hitting the seat in front of them, but my first thought was, “This plane is sinking, we have to get everybody off as soon as possible.”
Someone next to me was trying to pull the door in and I said, “No, it’s got to go out.” Thankfully, I’d just read that. I knew people would rush to the emergency exit, so if it had jammed there would have been a pile-up. I managed to get the door open and I grabbed the hand of a woman sitting next to me, Jenny. We walked out on to the wing, holding each other for support, the initial blast of cold air hitting us.
The waves were lapping over the wing and it was sinking lower. We pushed as far along as we could to make room for other people. I heard later that people at the back were shoving and pushing as the plane started to fill up with water, but on the wing everyone was helping each other. It was freezing, and nobody had a jacket. Some people were submerged up to their waists. I was thinking, “OK, now we’re going to drown. We’re going to die of hypothermia.”
It felt like half an hour before we saw the first ferry, although it can have been only five or 10 minutes. It was tantalisingly close. For a moment I thought about swimming for it, but I remembered hearing that hypothermia sets in in seconds, and within minutes your limbs no longer work. If you submerge your head, your brain doesn’t function properly.
I was fourth on to the ferry, and I started helping people on to the boat. There was a woman clutching a baby for dear life, and a man who had been submerged completely and was incoherent, laying on the deck of the ferry, moaning. The ferry drivers gave out their jackets and the shirts on their backs for people who were freezing.
I’ve had a lot of trauma since the crash. I’ve thought of alternative scenarios: the door not opening and being crushed. The wing catching in the water and tipping us in a cartwheel over and over until the plane falls apart and I’m upside down, submerged in water. And I’ve also thought, why me? Why am I still here? But one thing I will take away from the experience is how everyone pulled together. It’s comforting to know I was able to respond in a crisis. I got through it by taking it one step at a time; figuring out my next 10 seconds of action. Get the door open, throw the door out, figure out if you’re sinking. What is the immediate next thing I need to do? And the next? I just kept on doing that until I reached solid ground and got into the ferry terminal and talked to my wife. Only then did I go into the men’s room and let myself cry for a few minutes.
Upton Rehnberg, 72
Flight: United Airlines flight 232
Crash landing: Sioux City, Iowa
Date: 19 July 1989
I’d changed on to flight 232 at the last minute in the hope of getting home from a business trip for my son’s ninth birthday. I usually ask for a seat at the back, but 9A, a window seat by the left side emergency exit, had been one of the last available. If I’d taken my usual seat, I would be dead.
I was sitting in front of a flight attendant and, just over an hour into our journey, I leaned over to her and said quietly, “The pilot is flying this plane in a very strange way.” There had been a loud explosion, but an announcement had reassured us that we had lost only one engine and everything seemed to return to normal. The attendant said, softly, “Hydraulics.” I didn’t know that everything on that plane worked off the hydraulic system, and it had lost all power.
The flight attendants gave every appearance of business as usual. Then, 30 minutes after the explosion, they told us to adopt the brace position. They said we should be prepared for the worst.
I still didn’t think we were going to die. I assumed they would be able to get the aeroplane down. It was quiet. I remember taking off my tie – I don’t know why. I put my reading glasses in my shirt pocket, tied my shoelaces and waited.
I later learned that we hit the ground at 260mph; the normal landing speed is around 150. The right wing hit the ground first and started a fire. The plane slammed down, bounced up, came back down on to its nose and began to cartwheel.
The noise and impact were incredible. I couldn’t hold the brace position and I bounced upright with my arms over my head. A fireball of burning fuel came through the seal of the door next to my left knee and hit me in the face. It melted the front of my Dacron shirt, burned my chest and the gap between the tops of my socks and my trousers.
The plane broke into five sections and each went in a different direction. We were thrown around viciously, and I was knocked unconscious. When I came round, I was hanging upside down from my seat belt. I undid it and walked across the ceiling of the cabin to the exit. There were cables hanging down, so I held them up, letting the people behind me get out. I was just aware of the need to keep people moving so they weren’t blocking each other.
In a plane crash, people sit around waiting for direction, but being prepared can make all the difference. Now when I fly, I wear natural fibres. Often I wear a sweatshirt with a hood. A man in the burns unit with me was a flight engineer, and he told me that when airline personnel are passengers, they’re taught to cover their head with a blanket in an emergency landing. But there aren’t enough blankets for every passenger.
Dressing in a way that covers up as much of your body as possible, counting the rows from your seat to the emergency exits, knowing how to open them and moving quickly can make all the difference. You are the person you have to look to to save your life.
Rosebell Kirungi, 41
Flight: Small chartered flight
Crash landing: Rwenzori mountains, Democratic Republic of Congo
Date: 25 September 1998
It was a chartered flight from Uganda and we were just coming into Congo. I was seated over the wing, by the window. I was the only woman on board, with nine men.
About 45 minutes into the flight, I could see from my seat that the plane was flying very low over the mountains. The pilot announced he was losing control and I put on my seat belt. Other people panicked. I was thinking about my family, and praying. My worry was that if I died, my daughter was only four, I was a single mum, and I didn’t want her to lose me. Within three minutes, the plane had crashed into trees, tearing off the wing next to me, and nose-dived into the mountain.
The plane was in pieces. Some of the others went through the windscreen, but I was still strapped into my seat, with no injuries – the only thing I had lost were my shoes. I found myself taking off the seatbelt. The seats had been thrown from their position. There was no way to go forwards or backwards; the only way to get out was to climb out of the hole over the wing. I was very calm and determined, which I think was down to my faith. I got out and gave first aid to the other passengers who were in pain and bleeding. I got water from the plane and tried to keep them calm.
We knew the Congo rebels were in that area and we were afraid we might be found and killed. We divided ourselves into two groups of five to look for rescue parties. We got up at six and walked until seven or eight at night. It was raining and snowing, and we had nothing to eat or drink. I didn’t know which direction I was walking in, but I believed my life had been saved and the rest was up to me.
The others died one by one. The first day we lost three of our group. They didn’t have the strength to keep going and disappeared into the jungle. By the ninth day, I was on my own. I was rescued finally on the 10th day of walking, by a UN organisation and people from the Ugandan army. They couldn’t see the plane crash site from the air, so they’d had to send a group out on the ground. I had walked more than 100 miles. On the walk, I had developed gangrene. The medical facilities where I was rescued were inadequate. I was later airlifted to a better hospital, but by then my toes were turning black. They amputated both of my legs below the knee.
I look back in a very positive way. It happened for a reason. I learned to walk again, learned to drive again and did a degree. I even still enjoy flying.
• Rosebell Kirungi now runs Limbsworld (limbsworld.com), a charity to rehabilitate and retrain Ugandan amputees.
Dominica McGowan, 57
Flight: British Midland flight 92
Crash landing: The embankment of the M1 near Kegworth, Leicestershire
Date: 8 January 1989
We’d already had a meal and a glass of wine, and suddenly there was an announcement to say we were having difficulties. The stewards came racing through the plane, gathering up the dishes and throwing them into plastic bags.
I was a counsellor at the time, and the young woman sitting next to me in the aisle seat was quite upset, so I was saying, “Do you know anybody who’s ever been in a plane crash? What are the chances of it happening to us?” My friend Margaret was by the window, over the wing, and she kept saying, “Look at the smoke!” But I wasn’t paying any attention.
Then the pilot made an announcement, telling us to prepare for a crash landing. I thought he meant bumpy. It never dawned on me that we might actually crash. But I leaned forward and put my hands over my head, and the next thing I remember is this rubbery sound, like a flat tyre, and a crunch.
I thought I’d remained conscious throughout, but I’ve since been told I couldn’t have. I don’t remember coming to, but I remember blackness, and becoming aware that we’d stopped. I tried to wake Margaret, but she was unconscious, as was the woman on the other side of me. I just thought to myself, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
I released my seat belt and scrambled to the exit. I met firemen coming on to the plane, and they helped me down a canvas chute. And then I was lying on the ground in the freezing cold and somebody had rigged up a drip.
The next thing, I was in the ambulance. I had a fractured skull, a fractured shoulder, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken femur and my back was very badly damaged. I was in intensive care for a week and then on the wards for another week. Margaret was in intensive care for longer. She is still in a wheelchair.
When I got home and saw the crash on TV, and heard that 47 people had died, that’s when it really hit me. I thought everybody had crawled out like me. But I knew about post-traumatic stress through my work, and how important it was to talk about what had happened, to absorb it and allow it to become part of your life.
I was back at work by February. I have always been robust. Of course, I was lucky to be able to get up out of my seat. There were many people who were seriously injured, or didn’t survive. But going into that situation I was already quite hardened. Those instincts were there. I’d had a hard struggle in life, things had been tough. So the crash was another challenge I had to overcome.
The more anxious and tentative you are going into an experience like that, the more traumatic it’s going to be. I don’t look back on my life and think, “God, I was in a plane crash.” I look back and think, “I didn’t die, people were very kind and helpful.” I know how lucky I was walking away from that.
Mercedes Ramirez Johnson, 34
Flight: American Airlines flight 965
Crash landing: A mountain in Buga, Colombia
Date: 20 December 1995
It was my 21st birthday, and my parents and I were on our way to Cali, Colombia, to spend Christmas with my father’s side of the family. It was around 9pm, we were only about 15 minutes from landing when, without warning, the pilot pulled the nose of the plane straight up into the air. The cabin was shaking violently, the turbulence was unbelievably strong. And there was panic.
My mother was in the row in front. I was next to my father, in the exit row over the wing, but I remember hearing my mother praying. Her voice calmed me down. I didn’t think we were going to crash or die. I just kept thinking, “Hurry up and fix this. Straighten it out.” Then we heard this incredibly loud booming sound from the back of the plane and there was a strong vibration. I grabbed my father’s hand and he held mine really tightly. I put my head in my lap and closed my eyes.
When I came round, I was disoriented. Everything was in pieces all around me. The middle of my right thigh was bent and the bottom half of my leg was behind me, but I couldn’t feel any pain. I was laying in the aisle, and I could hear a man’s voice outside, so I dragged myself towards him. He pulled me out. Only four of us survived, all from the middle section of the plane. We waited 18 hours on the mountain for help.
It wasn’t until I got to hospital that I realised how badly I was injured. My leg was broken, I had injuries to my spinal cord, my back, internal injuries from the seat belt, broken ribs. Reporters came into my hospital room disguised as doctors and nurses and, on live television, told me my parents had passed away. I’ve seen footage of that interview, but I don’t remember talking to them.
It was later discovered that 15 minutes before the plane crashed, the pilots accidentally entered the wrong code into the flight computer. They didn’t realise we were heading into the mountains until the ground-proximity warning system started to sound. That was when they pulled the plane up. That loud booming sound was the back of the plane hitting the mountain.
Fred Jones, 58
Flight: As co-pilot in a Piper Cherokee
Crash landing: A Shropshire hillside
Date: 2 April 1988
When we took off, it was a lovely, clear day. Very cold. We passed the Long Mynd, a small mountain range. Suddenly the side windows froze up and you couldn’t see through them. I was co-pilot. The pilot, Ken Turner, said through the headset, “Feel your controls.” It was as if they’d been welded up.
Ken was quiet, I was quiet, trying to think what to do. We were hitting the controls, trying to put the heater on, but nothing worked. Then the engine started to miss. The carburettor had frozen up and the fuel had frozen in the lines. We were in freefall. The next thing I heard was Ken putting a Mayday out on the radio. Up my back I felt a cold chill. Neither of us said an awful lot.
We didn’t panic, but it was very chilling. We didn’t have parachutes. We couldn’t open the door in any case, because it opens against the wind. I didn’t even try to get into a protective position because, at the speed we were going, it was pointless. If you’re on a collision course in a light aircraft and fate isn’t with you, you’ve had it. I was resigned to the fact that in the 57 seconds it took us to come down, there was nothing we could do.
We kept trying to restart the engine in case some fuel had got through. The only other thing I could do was to try to turn the trim on the winding wheel above my head, to give the plane a bit more drag and slow the speed of the descent. When I was in a coma in the hospital, they say I was raising my right arm and winding, as if adjusting the trim.
All I knew at the time was that I was going to die. I was dropping in a plane at 180mph from 8,000ft. I felt the total shock of realisation that that’s it, you’ve had your chips. You’ve had a damned good life – I had a business that was basically printing money – but it was going to end that day. All I wanted was a phone. I just wanted to speak to my two young lads and tell them, “Everything’s all right, look after Mummy.”
The shadows of trees started coming past the side window. Then there was this almighty crunch, which was the port wing catching a tree. It sheared off level with the cockpit, which fell to the ground. I went straight through the dash. My face went through the glass, cut my nose clean off and my eye out. I don’t remember the slightest pain. Everything went black.
I was trapped in the cockpit, on the hillside. We were so fortunate the plane didn’t burn up or that would have been it, but we’d lost the fuel when we lost the wing.
The next thing I remember was waking up three weeks later in Shrewsbury hospital. I’d lost an eye, my nose, broken my spine, shoulder, jaw and ankle. It’s a tribute to the care I got that I was ever able to walk again.
Before, I was a businessman. I had my own company that I’d built up. I had a bit of a short fuse. The crash changed my attitude. Every day is a bonus. Even on an awful day, I’m here, I’m breathing ·
How to improve your chances of survival
Ed Galea, professor in mathematical modelling at the University of Greenwich in London, has compiled interviews with more than 1,000 survivors of 105 accidents. He outlines the steps you can take to improve your chances of survival.
Keep your shoes on until the aircraft has reached cruising altitude and before the plane starts to come in to land. If you have to get off the aircraft quickly, there may be debris in the cabin and outside, and you’ll need your shoes.
Get a seat as close to an exit as possible
Survivors travel on average within seven rows of a viable exit. If you are within five seat rows of a viable exit, your chances of surviving are greater.
Sit in the aisle
There is no real advantage to sitting at the front or the back of the plane, but statistics show you have a slightly better survival chance sitting by the aisle than by the window, because you can start moving towards the exit a lot quicker.
Seat your family together
In an emergency, families who are separated will try to reunite before they evacuate, causing havoc. Book the seats together or, on a low-cost airline that does not have seat reservations, ask to be moved to sit together. Also make a plan for who is responsible for each child, so there’s no confusion in the event of a crash.
Practise releasing your seat belt
A disturbing number of people had difficulty releasing their seat belts, mainly because they were trying to push buttons, as you would in a car. I always keep my seat belt done up all the time I’m seated.
Count how many seat rows you are from an exit, in front and behind, in case one is blocked. In a dark or smoke-filled environment, you might not be able to see where the exit is. In past accidents, we’ve seen people going past viable exits, not realising they were there. When we approach takeoff or landing, I always sit up in my seat and have a good look around me.
Practise the brace position
There is no point sitting close to an exit if you are physically unable to get out. The brace position is designed to minimise the chances of you being knocked unconscious or breaking a limb.
Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why, has spent years studying how the brain works in disasters such as plane crashes. She reveals how to think like a survivor.
Take the lead
We tend to become passive and obedient in crashes. Panic is extremely rare; much more common is silence and docility. In the 70s, there was a series of crashes in which most of the passengers survived the initial impact but were found dead in their seats with their seat belts on. Psychologists found that this reaction is common in any situation where people are in a passive position before an accident happens. In a plane, you follow orders – you’re not in control. People tend to continue playing that role after a crash.
Listen to the safety briefing
Safety experts have found that the more information passengers have before an accident, the more effective they will be. People who read the safety briefing cards do have a higher chance of survival. This is because, in unfamiliar environments, we tend to shut down. The more familiar you are with your environment – for example, counting the rows between you and the exit – the less likely you are to make mistakes.
In disasters, people tend to group together and become considerate of each other. People who sit in the exit rows can save hundreds of lives if they move quickly. Time and time again we found that passengers don’t like to throw the exit door out – it goes against everything in your being. If you prepare yourself, you can override that instinct.
It’s important to know why you need to respond in certain ways. For example, if oxygen masks are dropped down, they always say put yours on before your child’s – if you knew that, in a rapid decompression – which is not unusual – you have 10 seconds before you lose consciousness, then you’d make sure you followed that advice.
Your behaviour matters
Between 1983 and 2000, 56% of passengers involved in serious plane accidents survived. It’s important to realise they are survivable, and that what you do can make the difference. An active, engaged, confident outlook about your role in the situation is very powerful.
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