Everything about the fate of US Airways Flight 1549 seemed like a 1 million-to-1 shot — a flock of birds crossing a jetliner's path and taking out both engines, a safe landing in the Hudson River.
It was a chain of improbability. Birds tangle with airplanes regularly but rarely bring down commercial aircraft. Jet engines sometimes fail — but both at once? Pilots train for a range of emergencies, but few, if any, have ever successfully ditched a jet in one of the nation's busiest waterways without any life-threatening injuries.
No wonder New York Governor David Paterson called it “a miracle on the Hudson.”
As amazement turned to questions, a team of 20 National Transportation Safety Board investigators began looking into how Thursday's bizarre near-disaster happened.
US Airways chief executive Doug Parker said in a statement it was “premature to speculate about the cause.” Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said there was no immediate indication the incident was “anything other than an accident.”
If the accident was hard to imagine, so was the result: a cool-headed pilot maneuvering his hobbled jetliner over New York City and landing it in the river with an impact one passenger described as little worse than a rear-end collision. Besides one victim with two broken legs, there were no other reports of serious injuries to the 155 people aboard.
“You're happy to be alive, really,” 23-year-old passenger Bill Zuhoski said.
US Airways Airbus A320, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, took off from LaGuardia Airport at 3:26pm. Less than a minute later, the pilot reported a “double bird strike” and said he needed to return to LaGuardia, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Church said the controller told the pilot to divert to an airport in nearby Teterboro, New Jersey. It was not clear why the pilot, identified as Chesley Sullenberger of Danville, California, did not land there and headed for the Hudson instead.
The 150 passengers and five crew members were forced to escape as the plane quickly became submerged up to its windows in water. Dozens stood on the aircraft's wings on one of the coldest days this winter, as commuter ferries and Coast Guard vessels converged to rescue them.
One ferry, the Thomas Jefferson of the company NY Waterway, arrived within minutes. Riders grabbed life vests and rope and tossed them to plane passengers in the water.
“They were cheering when we pulled up,” Captain Vincent Lombardi said. “People were panicking. They said, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!”'
Two police scuba divers said they pulled a woman from a lifeboat “frightened out of her mind” and lethargic from hypothermia. Helen Rodriguez, a paramedic who was among the first to arrive at the scene, said she saw one woman with two broken legs.
Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, many for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries, fire officials said. Some of the shivering survivors were swaddled in blankets, their feet and legs soaked.
The plane initially remained afloat but sank slowly as it drifted downriver. Gradually, only about half of the tail fin and rudder were above water. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the aircraft finally wound up near Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan and about four miles from where the pilot ditched it.