As a sales manager, Sanderson travels about 100,000 miles a year, so if he could get home early to his wife and four children, he took the opportunity. Sanderson said there was nothing extraordinary about the day, a typical 11 degree New York morning.
“I truly believe I was supposed to be on that plane for a reason,” Sanderson told the audience at Wednesday’s Red Cross Heroes Dinner. “I was one of the first five people on the plane that day because of my status with U.S. Airways. I’m the chairman because I travel so much.”
Sanderson took seat 15A, four rows behind the left wing, took his coat off, put his bag away, took out a magazine and began reading.
“I did not listen to the flight crew,” Sanderson said. “I did not know where those exits were. I did not read the brochure they tell you to read. I guarantee you, every time I get on a plane now, I do.”
About a minute after the plane took off Sanderson heard an explosion, looked out to the wing and saw fire. He was not concerned until he found out the engine went out on the right side.
“That’s where I think God’s grace entered at the first moment,” Sanderson said. “Because no one knew that what happened on the left side of the plane happened on the right side of the plane simultaneously.”
Sanderson said not one person said anything from the time they boarded the plane until the crash into the river. There was complete silence.
Sanderson praised Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, a 57-year-old former fighter pilot and first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles, 49, for staying calm under extreme pressure.
Sanderson said Sullenberger told him the “moment” wasn’t the crash itself, but getting over the George Washington Bridge with no engines.
“The first thing I did was pray that whoever that captain was he would get us down,” Sanderson said. “The second thing I did was I called my wife to tell her I love her. The third thing I did was pray to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ to forgive me of my sins. I didn’t want anything between me and Him at that point.”
Sanderson reached for his wallet and shoved it down in his pants so his body could be identified.
The impact happened about 150 mph, and the seats actually broke on impact.
The series of events that followed have been documented on TV news footage. That footage shows Sanderson getting everyone off the plane, down onto the wing and then onto a New York Waterways tugboat to safety before leaving the plane himself.
When the emergency exists were opened, passengers were suddenly waist deep in water. Within two minutes the passengers were on the wing.
“When I got out into the aisle my mom came to my head. My mom passed away in 1997. She told us (her children) something that just popped into my head immediately,” Sanderson said. “If you do the right thing God will take care of you. The right thing for me at that moment was to make sure everyone else was out first.”
Sanderson praised the first responders, including the Red Cross workers, with being the real heroes, by getting there so quickly and taking charge of the scene.
“You can discard miracles all you want,” Sanderson said. “But having someone rescue you after a plane crash in ice cold water in two minutes to me is a miracle.”
Sanderson said one of the most poignant moments came when he looked to the wing of the plane and saw a woman holding a baby. She was not only in peril because of the precarious situation of having to get into a lifeboat surrounded by slippery jet fuel, but the other passengers couldn’t get onto the wing until she moved off.
“I just looked up and I yelled, ‘throw the baby,’” Sanderson said. “I knew she wasn’t going to throw her baby but I got her attention.”
Sanderson said the woman looked directly at him.
“It’s amazing that God puts people where he wants them,” Sanderson said.
A woman from Knoxville, Tenn., was already in the lifeboat and she asked the woman to hand her the baby, which she did. After that she walked down the wing into the boat and the others then followed. Sanderson credits the woman with the baby for saving the lives of the other passengers by having the faith to hand her baby over.
Sanderson, who grew up not far from Portsmouth, in Hillsboro, credits his parents with having him take Red Cross swimming lessons as a child, because he had to swim to get off the plane, then swim in the process of getting to the tugboat.
As he found out later at the hospital where his temperature was 94, he was already suffering from hyperthermia, and could not climb the ladder onto the ferry brought by the tugboat.
“My mom kicked into my head again,” Sanderson said. “When we were kids and we said ‘can‘t’ my mom said ‘Can’t? You must.’”
“I put one arm up and tried to climb this thing, and I had two angels reach down and grab my arms and pull me up on this ferry,” Sanderson said.
He said a man in a grey suit approached him with an iPhone and told him to call his wife. His fingers were frozen, so the man dialed the phone. It was Sanderson’s first conversation with his wife.
At the hospital he had to have his underwear cut off because it was frozen to his body, and it took five hours for him to thaw out.
Since that day he made the rounds on the TV news channels as well as churches and other venues across the country, telling his story.
“I found myself in the middle of something that had never been done in the history of aviation, and gave people hope,” Sanderson said. “If you read the Bible it says ‘suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us.’”
FRANK LEWIS may be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232, or email@example.com.