10 years later, Red Cross response to ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ continues to give hope

Red Cross Disaster Executive Scott Graham (right) speaks during the Power of Miracles event in Durham, N.C. on Jan. 17, 2019.

Scott Graham’s crew at the mid-Manhattan office of the Red Cross was experienced – the group typically handled relief for 8-10 incidents, such as fires, a day. Members, who included a retired New York City police officer and retired firefighters, were used to springing into action on short notice. But a plane crash into a river is no everyday incident, even for a veteran group.

On Jan. 15, 2009, with wintry temperatures around 20 degrees, Graham got a phone call about 3:30 p.m. from New York City Emergency Management with news that a US Airways jetliner had gone down in the Hudson River. Graham’s first thought: “We’re going to need blankets.”

“We had to mobilize our team, and we had to do it quickly,” Graham said.

Graham’s team was ready in minutes after the Airbus A320-214 went down off the 42nd Street ferry terminal, near the Red Cross office. Dozens of Red Crossers were on hand when ferries brought survivors to shore in mid-Manhattan, and a truckload of supplies arrived quickly. Across the river in New Jersey, the Red Cross was there for survivors taken to the other side.

“You’ve got to have the equipment in place, the right people and communication,” Graham said.

All 155 aboard Flight 1549, which was bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, survived, and the event has been dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

On Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, people gathered at The Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham to commemorate the 10th anniversary. The co-pilot of Flight 1549, Jeff Skiles, was a guest speaker, as well as Dave Sanderson, who was the last passenger off the sinking plane. Also there Thursday night was Graham, who shared his account of the how the Red Cross rapidly mobilized to make a difference.

The story of how the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, coolly brought the plane down after striking a flock of geese minutes after takeoff has been the subject of a movie – “Sully” – books and numerous articles in the news media. But little has been told of how the Red Cross sprang to action.

More than 200 Red Crossers responded immediately to help survivors keep warm in the freezing weather and to provide emotional support. But the number of community responders would grow to the thousands over the following days, as the response at the site continued for workers removing the plane from the Hudson.

Sanderson said the unsung heroes on the day of the crash were the ferry operators who plucked the wet survivors off the wings of the plane as it took on water – and the Red Cross workers.

“When I got to shore, there were three EMTs and one Red Cross guy with a blanket,” he said.

Red Cross workers provided other aid – such as helping survivors get in touch with loved ones – in the immediate aftermath and followed through to ensure that needs such as clothing were met.

“The sense of calm and relief was enormous,” Graham said. “Kindness was the most important thing.”

Sanderson noted that when he returned to Charlotte, he was greeted not only by his wife, but by Red Cross workers who had been supporting the entire family – that helped make him a believer in the Red Cross. He has gone on to become an active supporter of the Red Cross mission of alleviating suffering and helping those in emergencies.

“The American Red Cross does that every single moment of every single day – give hope,” Sanderson said.

Story by Michael White/American Red Cross

To view photos from the evening, visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/triangleredcross/albums/72157688892330003/with/39829040753/