A year later, trying to keep the promises made in the wake of Flight 1549


POSTED: Friday, January 15, 2010

NEW YORK » It is something of an unwritten rule, with the exception of ham-fisted Hollywood scripts, that anyone who walks away from a plane crash is supposed to have made a deal with a higher power in exchange for that walk.

It has been a year to the day since passengers on the Miracle on the Hudson, US Airways Flight 1549, took just such a walk—not to mention a swim and a ride on a ferry—after their plane hit a flock of geese and lost power in both engines. They had had 90 or so long, long seconds of descent—ample time for grim reflection and if-I-live promises. But many passengers have said they thought only of preserving, and not improving, their lives as the plane glided toward the icy water.

“;I can confirm the prayer part,”; said one passenger, Theresa Leahy. “;But changing my life? No. I'm a very forward-looking person. I do believe things happen for a reason. I'm not looking for some great path to be revealed to me through all of this.”;

No, the vows toward self-improvement, of deals to do better in their lives, came later—hours, days or weeks later. Several passengers, looking back over the last 12 months, said their promises seem to be holding up—but not all of them, and not always as much as they had hoped.

Vincent Spera, 40, started with a simple goal: Carry less stuff. So far so good. He recently got a Kindle and does not even carry books on his frequent business trips anymore.

Then, like many other parents on Flight 1549, he looked at his family—he has a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son—with an eye toward looking at them all a bit more.

“;Committing to specific things to do on a weekend or a day when I get home,”; he explained. “;Committing, almost in writing. Different games, practices. Making their taekwondo practice—and that's just practice. Forget about belt testing.”;

A sales manager for Pacific Life Insurance Co., he works hard to keep his job out of the house on weekends.

“;A year ago I might have said, 'Well, I'm busy, I've got to prepare to leave Monday,”;' he said. “;Well, the heck with leaving Monday. I'll prepare for that now. I'll spend the weekend with you.”;

His vow is not as easy as he makes it sound, and he said it hurts when he sees himself backsliding.

“;Let's say my son would say, 'Hey, Dad, can we go throw the ball?' “; Spera said. “;But it's Wednesday, and I've got a conference call in 30 minutes. Watching him walk out, you say, 'Oh, man, I shouldn't have done that.' You almost need a rubber band. Had I gone out and thrown the ball for 15 minutes, I still would have had 15 minutes before the call. Those slippages can be disappointing. You look at their face.”;

Many passengers surely promised themselves that they would not take another minute around loved ones for granted. Maryanne Bruce, 49, a mutual fund investor in Charlotte, N.C., the flight's destination, has taken that pledge a step further, and has made it a point to convey it every chance she gets, believing most people say nice things about others only after they die.

“;Why does everybody rush to go to a funeral?”; she said. “;It's too late.”;

So as not to spook an old friend with sudden and unexpected outpouring of love, she has a little preamble to set it up. She last delivered it to a former colleague just last week, when they had lunch. Bruce had been her boss, and the woman had just received a promotion.

“;Since I've been in a crash, I try to do things a little differently,”; Bruce explained. “;I told her how much I enjoyed working with her and how proud I was that she got this new opportunity.”;

The woman was surprised. “;She cried,”; Bruce said. “;She had always looked up to me and she didn't realize how much I meant to her.”;

But Bruce, like everyone else, sometimes takes out her frustrations on those closest to her, and she continues to struggle with that, as she did after a recent road trip with her family when her husband ignored her directions and added three hours to the drive by relying on dashboard technology.

“;I'm a work in progress,”; Bruce said. She and several other passengers shared their stories of relief and rebirth in a new book, “;Brace for Impact: Miracle on the Hudson Survivors Share Their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life”; (HCI Books).

One passenger, Barry Leonard, 56, the chief executive of a home fashion company, heard the now famous announcement from the cockpit—”;Brace for impact”;—and did not think about asking God for anything. Rather, he thought he was getting an answer. “;My wife was getting tests back from a result for cancer,”; he said. The day before the flight, he prayed and asked God, “;If you're going to take anybody, take me,”; he said.

“;When the plane was struck by the birds and it started to go down, I actually thought about that,”; he said. “;For some reason, he decided to react much quicker than I thought he would.

“;I remember, as the plane is going down, thinking about that and getting a smirk on my face. I was OK with that. I would take that deal for my wife or my children any day of the week.”;

Asked, in hindsight, what his fellow passengers might have thought about his “;deal,”; which could have inadvertently cost them their lives, he laughed. “;We have a tendency of personalizing this for ourselves,”; he admitted.

His wife's tests came back negative.

James McDonald, 40, knew his way around what he called an “;if I can get out of this, dear Lord”; foxhole prayer. He was found to have a brain tumor in 2006, and beat the diagnosis. After cheating death a second time three years later, he concedes that his changes in his lifestyle were not extravagant.

“;I traveled a lot less in the last year than previous years,”; McDonald, a software salesman from Charlotte, said. “;But I'm not giving it all up to be an organic farmer or join the Peace Corps or anything noble. I'm just a guy.”;

A guy with three children under age 6.

“;In the past, I'll work until 6 or 7 at night,”; he said. “;On innumerable occasions in the past year, I've pulled the plug at 4 and taken the kids out in the backyard to swing on the swing set.”;

Still, like his fellow passengers, he has found it's not always easy. After all, he was speaking from a business trip in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “;Meetings end Thursday night,”; he said. “;I am averse to flying at night if I can avoid it, so I decided to stay until Friday. Now I'm beating myself up, because I'm not going to see my kids until Friday, and should I change my flight?”;

Brad Wentzell, 32, dried himself off after the crash, made it home to Charlotte, and thought about changes—”;Being a better father, better husband”;—for about a minute, until he realized he was already pretty darn good at those roles.

“;There's only so much you can do,”; he said. “;You try to live a better life, but at the same token, I guess it depends on how bad a life you were living before.”;

He finds himself now eavesdropping on planes during the boarding process, as his fellow passengers gripe about the lack of overhead space or feeling rushed.

“;I kind of smile to myself,”; he said. “;Things could be a lot worse.”;