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Vallie Collins: A Miracle on The Hudson

Written by Matt Hollingsworth

Reflecting on those events, Vallie Collins said, “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but no one thinks they’ll die today.”

It was January 15, 2009, and Vallie sat by the gate at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, watching the clock. Her flight had been delayed because of weather but she was still hoping to be home in time to read her children bedtime stories. This flight would take her to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she would catch a connecting flight to her home in Maryville, Tennessee. After a night away, she was looking forward to returning to her husband and three children, ages nine, six, and four.

Finally, the passengers were told to board, and Vallie walked to her seat in the back of the plane where she found a blue baby blanket draped over her chair. Confused, she looked back into the galley where a mom was soothing her baby. Not wanting to disturb the mom, Vallie handed the blanket to the flight attendant.
Conveniently, Vallie was seated in the aisle next to the only empty seat on the plane. To pass the time, she made small talk with the man one seat over at the window, but they didn’t have to wait long, at least by LaGuardia standards, before reaching the runway.

The plane began its vertical ascent, but less than two minutes after takeoff, there was a boom, just loud enough to be startling, followed by a thudding noise like a shoe in a clothes dryer. But perhaps more frightening than the noise was the silence that followed it. Vallie, who often flew for her job, immediately noticed that she could no longer hear the engine, nor could she feel the plane rising

“What was that?” Vallie asked the man beside her who had been staring out the window.

“Birds,” he said. Smelling something burning, Vallie turned to her left. Out the opposite window, smoke streamed from the engine.
It reminded her of something a pilot had told her on a particularly turbulent flight, nearly ten years earlier: “Ma’am, don’t worry about turbulence. That’s just a customer service problem. All we worry about in the cockpit are birds and fire.”
Now suddenly, they had both.

This couldn’t be happening to her. Airplanes were supposed to be the safest form of travel. Turning to her seatmate, Vallie said, “I’ve got three kids to raise.”
The man calmly replied, “I have a daughter, and I’m going to see her tonight.” Vallie wanted to believe him but realized in horror that she didn’t.
She imagined her husband hearing about the crash on the news, tortured for hours because he wasn’t certain if that had been her flight and if she’d made it onboard, unsure if his wife was alive or dead. She grabbed her cell phone and sent a text: “My flight is crashing.”

Right then, just 90 seconds after the initial collision, the plane’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, made an announcement in the steadiest, most controlled voice Vallie had ever heard: “This is the captain. Brace for impact.”

Vallie closed her eyes to pray. She didn’t feel scared as much as sad, thinking of all she was going to miss. Who was going to plan her children’s birthday parties? She wasn’t going to get to be the Mother of the Bride when her daughter married. She wasn’t going to see her youngest son hit his first home run. If it was God’s will for her to die in this crash, she didn’t like it, but she accepted it. She knew where she was going. She thought of her grandfather waiting for her in Heaven.

Upfront, Captain Sully faced his famous decision. Without enough time to turn back to LaGuardia, he told air traffic control, “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”
Three minutes, twenty seconds after the accident, Vallie’s seatmate put his hand on her leg and said, “Be ready. We’re going in the water.”

She thought of news reports she’d seen of airplanes hitting the water, cartwheeling, and shattering into debris. She told herself, if you’re conscious, just swim to the light.
Three-and-a-half minutes after being struck by birds, the plane made contact with the Hudson River. The tail of the plane hit first, slowing it down enough to stop it from shattering. It was a miracle, a perfect landing.

Vallie’s first thought was that the landing wasn’t nearly as bad as she was expecting. Her next thought was, how do I get off this plane? For three-and-a-half minutes, her life had been in the captain’s hands. Now, she had a bit of control as to whether she lived or died.
In utter panic, she told her seatmate to open the window for them to climb out before remembering that airplane windows don’t open. Vallie shot up toward the rear galley where the flight attendant was trying to open the door. Vallie struggled to help, but due to the water pressure outside, the door wouldn’t budge. Suddenly, 35-degree water began to fill the cabin. It nipped at her ankles, so intensely cold it felt like needles.

The flight attendant looked at Vallie and said, “You have two minutes. Go to the wings.” Vallie did as she was told, but a crowd was now pressing through the aisle toward the back galley, blocking the way as the water kept rising. Within seconds, it had reached her chest, and she’d never felt so cold in her life. This was the most terrifying moment of the experience.

Lord, please don’t let me drown, she prayed, and suddenly she felt at peace. She raised her hands and shouted to the crowd blocking her way, “Go to the wings! Go to the wings!” It was like walking uphill as she made her way to the exits by the wings. She grabbed a seat cushion drifting beside her to use as a float. All around her, people cried and screamed. Others climbed over seats trying to reach the exits. One person even tried to grab his suitcase from the overhead compartment.
“Go to the wings!” Vallie said. “Go to the wings!”

The lights had gone off when they hit the water, so the plane was dark but as she fought forward, she finally saw daylight pouring in from the open doors by the wings. We’re going to make it, she told herself, stay calm; God is good.
Vallie was one of the last passengers out. She exited onto the right side of the plane and stood on the back of the wing. Beside her, the plane’s inflatable slide had deployed and passengers were using it as a makeshift life raft.

“Throw the baby!” yelled someone on the raft. Vallie looked to her side and saw the mother whose blanket had been on her seat, clutching her young baby with a four-year-old girl beside her.

“Throw your baby!” another person yelled from the raft, his arms outstretched. The raft was already packed tightly, and it would have been difficult for the mother to maneuver off the slippery wet wing and onto the raft while balancing the baby.
In the distance, ferry boats were approaching the crash.

“Hand me your baby,” Vallie told the mom. Reluctantly, the mother handed over the young boy and Vallie passed him to someone more secure on the raft. Vallie climbed into the raft beside him then looked up at the mom and said, “Give me your girl.” The mother handed her the daughter, and Vallie held her tightly as the mother joined them on the raft.
“We’re going to be okay,” Vallie told the little girl, rubbing her head to comfort her. “Somebody’s going to come get us.” The girl chewed on Vallie’s arm through her sweater while holding the blue baby blanket, the same one that had been draped over Vallie’s seat.

After 10 minutes, the ferries finally arrived, deploying what looked like a rubber climbing wall to help the passengers climb to the deck, fifteen feet above their heads. One-by-one they made their way up, several struggling. Vallie climbed halfway with the little girl still in her arms. She lifted her over her head into the waiting arms of one of the ferry workers before climbing the rest of the way.

Once she was aboard the ferry, Vallie remembered she’d texted her husband when their flight was crashing, so the first thing she did was ask one of the men to borrow his cell phone—as her own phone was with her purse at the bottom of the Hudson River. She called her husband: “Honey, it’s me. I’m okay.”
All he said was: “Call your mother.”

Vallie called her mom who had heard about the crash on the news and was hysterical. When she finally calmed down, she told Vallie, “I knew you’d be okay.”
To the side, Vallie saw the mother from the flight that she’d helped along with her husband and two children, all safely together on the ferry. As they sailed back to shore, Vallie shivered, trying to get warm. She took off her drenched sweater, and the ferry captain approached her, taking his own shirt off his back and handing it to her.
“How am I going to get this back to you?” Vallie asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s from Walmart.”

Even with the dry shirt, she was profoundly cold. At that moment, if she’d been offered a million dollars or a pair of warm socks, she’d have taken the socks.
Vallie was processed at the Weehawken ferry terminal in New Jersey where she was given a full set of dry clothes—including the tube socks she’d so wanted, which a volunteer bought for the passengers.

She would later recall, “The outpouring of people that came to help and assist in a relatively short fashion was unbelievable.”
Miraculously, all 155 passengers had survived.

After two hours, she was taken to the Hoboken University Medical Center. One of the port authority officers was waiting for her with her original clothes, now dried. He sat beside her and said, “I was in 9/11. I’m going to tell you: This is going to stay with you a long time.” At the time, she didn’t understand what he meant. At the time.
Meanwhile, her husband called his cousin who lived in that area. The port authority officer escorted Vallie to the cousin’s house where she would spend the night. The next day, her husband travelled up to New Jersey to drive her back home to Maryville.

Vallie would later explain five key things she learned from her experience. The first is the importance of kindness. Be kind to everyone, because you don’t know who will be the last person you interact with. She explained, “In the days after, I thought, would the bus driver that took me from the rental car office to the terminal, would he have thought of me as a kind person? Did I smile at the gate agent that scanned my ticket? Was I as friendly as I could possibly be to my seatmate?”

Second, Vallie learned the value of empathy for the emotional battles and PTSD that others may deal with that aren’t visible on the surface. Third is the importance of being physically fit, because you never know when you’ll be in a position where you have to save your own life or someone else’s. Fourth is the value of the perspective—once you’ve experienced a situation where you thought you were going to die, everything else seems smaller and more manageable.

Finally, she learned the importance of time, maximizing, using, and giving the time you have left. Everyone knows they’re going to die, but no one thinks they’ll die today. The interesting thing about being so close to death is that each day after is a gift—to be lived to the fullest, to serve others and glorify God.

About the author

Matt Hollingsworth

Matt Hollingsworth is the chief writer for the Bingham Group where he writes articles for Monroe Life, Farragut Life, and McMinn Life magazines. He has a degree in publishing from Belmont University and has previously written content for Aspire—Clinton, TN's largest park. In his spare time, he writes science fiction with Christian themes.

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