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January 22, 2009 3:18 PM

Venable Partner on US Air Flight 1549: 'The Water Was Up to My Neck'

Posted by Brian Baxter

Jim Hanks For James Hanks, Jr., it's been an eventful week.

It started with a dip in the frigid Hudson River last Thursday. The 65-year-old Venable corporate partner was one of the 155 people on board US Airways Flight 1549. Hanks is now back in Baltimore juggling client matters, teaching assignments at Cornell and Northwestern, and an upcoming trans-Atlantic flight to Austria to visit his wife and daughter.

The Am Law Daily caught up with Hanks after he returned from a trip to Chicago for a chat about his practice, teaching, and adventures in aviation.

Jim, thanks for taking the time. I take it you were in New York last week on business?

Yes, I was attending a client's stockholders meeting as well as on a panel for a PLI program. And after that I left for LaGuardia Airport to fly to Charlotte for more business.

When did you realize on that flight that things had gone horribly wrong?

About 90 seconds after takeoff there was this kind of small explosion or loud crack or snap--it seemed like a single sound--and then some smoke began to come into the aircraft.

I'd imagine that was a bit disconcerting.

Right. That caused me to turn on the air above my seat. [The smoke] dissipated but more worrisome was the fact that there was no sound at all, which I knew meant that the engines had shut down.

How long before you were in the drink?

Another two or three minutes. I knew we had taken off to the north and I noticed the aircraft began turning to the left. We continued in that direction and then I heard the captain say, 'Brace for impact,' which is not something that I had ever heard before on a commercial airplane! Then a flight attendant came on over the PA and instructed us on how to put our head down with our arms over our heads, etc.

I soon found out that it's tough to sustain an acute sense of readiness for some cataclysmic event indefinitely. So as I had my head down between my knees, covered with my arms, I would sneak a look to the left and right to see where we were.

Where were you?

I could see the West Side Highway to my left and the New Jersey Palisades to my right. I knew that meant the captain was probably going to try and line up for a landing in the Hudson, which I felt was probably our only chance. We had a bit of altitude at first but soon we got down pretty close to the water, and that's when I gripped pretty hard and just tried to keep my head down.

What was the "landing" like?

We hit with just a tremendous crash and impact and I could hear this roar. Stuff was flying all around, but it felt like we just hit and stopped. But from looking at the video, it shows us hitting and gliding for a little ways. Whatever it was, it only lasted a couple seconds. And for an instant after all of that there was only silence. Then it was complete pandemonium.

Wow.

Now it wasn't pandemonium in a pejorative sense. It just wasn't orderly, which you wouldn't expect it to be [in that situation]. People were focused on getting up that aisle to the front exits. But there weren't any guys shoving women aside to get out.

Where were you seated?

It was a full flight so I was about three rows from the rear [of the plane]. I wanted to head for the nearest exit but the door in the back by me was twisted, bent, and jammed. And since there was already water coming in, I knew that wasn't going to happen.

How long did it take before the water started coming in?

It was immediate. When I got out of my seat, the water was already at my waist. By the time I went to the [emergency exit] in the back and saw I wasn't going to get out the door, just in those seconds the water had already risen to my neck.

I guess that brought about a renewed sense of urgency to find an exit.

At that point I truly thought I was going to drown. The water was up to my neck and there was only about six inches above my head to the ceiling. I just didn't see how a full flight of people could get out going forward before the water engulfed us.

How did you do it?

When I turned back and started up the front aisle a remarkable thing happened. I realized that the aircraft had landed at an angle and started sinking by the tail. As I and others moved forward, the water level surrounding us went down. It was at my neck, chest, waist, and then knees. Then I saw these two forward door openings and my eyes were drawn to the one on the right, where the sun was streaming through. And by the time I got there, there was no more water.

Sounds like salvation. I assume you then got the heck off that plane?

Yes. I walked out the door and stepped right onto a crowded life raft.

How long did you wait before the ferries arrived?

It was kind of a blur but not very long. The ferries came and then we had a lot of people to get up the ladder from the life raft to the boat. I held the ladder while others helped people up, including this one woman who had a pretty severe leg wound. Then we got a very elderly woman aboard who was in a wheelchair. And she's a real heroine of mine, because she just sat there very serenely in the raft not complaining or seeking to be treated or taken care before anyone else. But we got a rope and hoisted her up next.

Did you have any interaction with the captain or hear about birds being involved?

No, I didn't see the captain or hear about geese until we got ashore in the New York Waterway terminal building. People were going up to the captain and thanking him, but he was being very quiet. It looked like he did not want to engage in any extensive conversation, which is certainly understandable.

So after the terminal in Manhattan they took you to a hotel in Queens and you were free to go?

That's right. People were free to go and they were drifting away during all of this. I flew out the next day back to Baltimore [on US Air].

Any trepidation?

No, you've got to keep moving forward. I will confess that I noticed that my flight to Baltimore was leaving almost to the minute as my flight the day before to Charlotte. It did occur to me that if there were geese out there that day, they could be out there again today. But I can't let my life be run by a bunch of geese.

Had you left any work documents or personal effects on Flight 1549?

All that is still somewhere in that aircraft. Although I'm a corporate lawyer, I had a black litigation-style briefcase and it was packed with documents. Most of the documents are pretty easily replaceable. I had some notes in there too, along with a brown overnight bag and a heavy overcoat that's probably finished.

Has anyone told you if you can recover them?

We got a letter from the airline saying that our personal belongings are now in the custody of the NTSB. They're going to be sent some place to be weighed in their current state, dried for eight weeks, and then weighed again. So the airline can't return the items to us until the NTSB recovers and releases them, a process they say will likely take several months.

Well at least you didn't leave anything valuable in there.

Thankfully both my wedding ring and my wallet survived intact. But when I got on the ferry I discovered that my BlackBerry, which I also use for my cell phone, was fried.

Were you worried about contacting your family or people at Venable to let them know you were okay?

I was. This nice young guy from Latvia let me use his cell phone but I wanted to call my wife in Austria. But I didn't want to stick him with that call. So I called my office and they patched me over to [my wife]. She was somewhat distraught because they had broken into Austrian television with the news and I wasn't able to call her for about an hour after crashing. And she initially thought I was still on the aircraft when I called!

Do you normally fly US Air?

I travel a lot but it depends. I also teach part-time at Cornell and Northwestern. And there's no real convenient way to get to Cornell so I usually fly to Philadelphia or LaGuardia and then take US Air from there to Ithaca. But US Air has been terrific throughout all of this with daily inquiries about what they can do for us and wanting to know if we have any questions. They've really been outstanding.

What do you teach?

I teach M&A at Northwestern's law school and international M&A at Cornell's business school. I usually teach both every spring semester. I teach once a week at Northwestern and my international M&A course is three Friday-Saturday sessions.

I hear all the passengers on Flight 1549 get a free flight. Any plans?

[US Air] is providing me with a ticket to fly to Austria so I can bring my wife and daughter back. So I'm heading out there [on Thursday].

You're a glutton for punishment! Well it's an amazing story, one that I take you won't forget for some time.

Yeah, I don't think so. I would like to say that all of us who survived are very happy, but for myself, I'm especially happy that everyone else survived. I've found that now I can take a lot of joy and gratitude undiminished by the fact that anyone else died.


[Note: All interviews are edited and condensed for grammar and style.]


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Based on the official reports AND from a friend who was on the plane, this account is completely over-dramatized. No one was ever in water above their knees. Makes for a sensational story, but please, let's have a little bit of research to confirm a story

Any chance that the captain flew into the Hudson on purpose?
The United Geese Union (UgU) submits this pledge on behalf of geese around the world. Put simply, we will disprove Captain Sullenberger ’s account of the events on January 15 2009. The UgU asserts that Sullenberger’s purposely crashed his plane into the Hudson River in an effort to circumvent US Airway’s decision to remove free water from flights.

I think the water level thing is all relative depending on one’s height, no? Saw a few people on news last week say folks at back of the plane had it much worse. Video seems to confirm that fact.

I was in the back of the plane and the water was rising pretty quickly at first; I"m 5;6 and it was at my knees and getting higher; like Jim said we tried to get out the back but we realised that wasn't the smartest move so we all single filed out the side. And yes, the elderly woman in our raft was remarkable for her calm as was the young girl though she looked like she was in shock. We got them out first after Doreen Welsh- whose bleeding leg needed to be stopped was lifted first. I agree with Jim: never heard the words "brace for impact" said that way, I am an attorney so that's rare when two attorneys agree. Can't sleep much but have to put food on the table.

This was a remarkably interesting piece. With all the publicity about the heroism of the pilot, it's easy to forget that so many passengers were impacted. I think we've all been on flights where there is an odd clunking noise that stirs momentary anxiety. I found it fascinating to read Mr. Hanks' observations when the clunk turned out to be real.

Who cares if the water was neck deep or knee deep. I would venture a guess that if you made it out of that horrendous event alive and unscathed, water level arguments seem a bit petty.
Marilyn Phoenix former flight attendant.

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