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For a 3407 survivor, seeing ‘Sully’ brings tears, questions and painful memories

I kept debating what I should do. Should I go, or stay home? Should I call a friend for support, or go alone? In the end, I went alone.

The lights dimmed, and I took a deep breath as “Sully,” a movie about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Jan. 15, 2009, appeared on the screen.

I remembered my husband Doug and me standing in our family room on Long Street in Clarence as we watched an account of the miraculous Hudson landing on the evening news. Who could forget the image of the passengers of U.S. Airlines Flight 1549 standing on the plane’s wings after an emergency water landing on the Hudson River? Doug and I both marveled at the miracle. How amazing it was that all aboard had survived.

Now, watching the movie, I could not help but compare that miracle to our tragedy.

Less than a month later, Colgan/Continental Flight 3407 crashed into our home and our lives. Few people remember the proximity of those two events.

I will never forget.

The movie reinforces the importance of training, airline policy, and experience in the cockpit, qualities that enabled Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles to make a successful water landing.

I wondered what if more experienced pilots had been at the controls of Flight 3407. From all indications, the 3407 pilots panicked and improperly responded to “stick shaker” and “stick pusher” warnings.

[Related: Hanks, Eastwood prove the power of excellence in "Sully"]

The shaker activates and shakes to get the pilot’s attention that the plane is slowing down. The right response from a pilot should be to give the plane more power to speed it up. The “pusher” activates to signal that the plane is getting dangerously slow, so it forces the stick in the pilot’s hand to push forward. This drops the nose of the plane and causes it to dive and recover speed to prevent it from stalling.

Unfortunately, the pilots were startled by both warnings. They fought the pusher by pulling back on the stick and raising the nose. This slowed the plane down even more and basically doomed the flight. Their action guaranteed that the plane would stall and they would lose control.

What if the flight had been scheduled for daytime arrival and not late at night? When I see aerial views of the landscape surrounding 6038 Long Street, I see open fields, which would have been visible during the day. Would the pilots have been able to change their course and avoid the plummet into our home?

I was thankful for the dark theater, and that I was alone. I cried throughout the movie. I shed tears of regret and loss, but they were mixed with tears of joy for Flight 1549’s happy ending.

Both Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles have joined the 3407 family members in Washington, and it has been an honor for me to meet them. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart’s portrayals were spot on. They took on the mannerisms of Sully and Skiles.

It seemed crazy to me that I actually had met the people portrayed in this movie.

My meetings with Skiles have been brief – a quick introduction and a hand shake. However, many of the 3407 family members have worked closely with him. They know his dedication to air safety, and they have also witnessed his subtle wit that came through in the movie.

I first met Capt. Sullenberger in February of 2015. He was to meet 3407 family members and Sen. Chuck Schumer at the Long Street Memorial. He intended to lend his support to the families’ continuing efforts to enforce a law enacted in 2010. That law required one level of safety for all airlines. At the time of the Sullenberger visit, Buffalo had been hit with a lake effect storm, and it looked like the gathering on Long street might be called off.

Before the decision had been made I was able to attend a private breakfast before the scheduled news conference. I was introduced to both the Captain and his wife Lorrie. As I shook their hands, I was impressed by their genuine concern for the 3407 families.

Karen Wielinski was one of the family members of Flight 3407 victims who were on hand as "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger spoke in Clarence in 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Karen Wielinski was one of the family members of Flight 3407 victims who were on hand as "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger spoke in Clarence in 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The news conference went on, although it was moved to the Town Hall. Despite the swirling winds and snow, there was a large contingent of 3407 families and local reporters. Schumer even managed get to Buffalo despite the storm. As promised, Capt. Sullenberger vowed to join the efforts of the families to secure enforcement of the safety law.

John Kausner, who lost his daughter Ellyse in the crash, saw things in a different light.

“He didn’t join our effort; we joined his,” he said. “Captain Sullenberger has been safety-conscious long before we ever knew there was an issue. We’re joining his lifelong efforts to make sure that the pilots in the sky are safe, trained and reliable as he was that day.”

When Sullenberger enters a room, the atmosphere changes. You can feel the electricity. He deserves respect, and automatically receives it. I felt that respect at both the news conference and on the occasions he gathered with us in D.C.

At the movie, I noticed that the theater was filled with people of all ages, including families. That was refreshing to see.

The world needs more heroes like Sully and Skiles, and those who came together in rescue efforts. People stepping up to help others--that is one thing Flight 1549 and Flight 3407 have in common.

No doubt, their hearts were beating rapidly that January day, but Sully and Skiles kept their minds sharp, and were able to use their training and experience to prevent tragedy.  They became heroes.

The real Sully. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The real Sully. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

I continue to make comparisons – different circumstances, different levels of training and experience. I posted my thoughts about my reaction to Sully on Facebook, and some comments to that post brought additional “What ifs” to my mind.

One friend asked if I knew how much time the 3407 pilots had between realizing that there was a problem and the crash. Her question prompted me to sit in front of my computer, in the wee hours of the morning, scrolling through the National Transportation Safety Board’s official report, which included the cockpit recordings. It was too painful, and I had to stop before finding an answer.

Why do I do such things? I’ve discussed this many times with my psychologist. I call it my masochistic tendencies – feeling like I have to delve deeper into 3407, even if I know it will hurt me. There is that saying, “if you feel pain, you at least know you are alive.” Perhaps, as a survivor, that is why I keep searching for explanations and insights.

In the end, I contacted Kevin Kuwik, a 3407 family member and leader in the fight for airline safety. His reply confirmed that answers could be found in the NTSB report, but he kindly summarized their findings for me. There was only a 27-second interval from when the first warning occurred to when the plane started to wobble and veer, and finally crashed.

In the movie, the NTSB re-created, via a simulation with real pilots, what would have happened if Sully and Skiles had tried to take the plane back to an airport. I asked Kevin if the NTSB had done such a simulation for 3407’s crash. “The simulation that the NTSB did share at the hearing was basically a 27-second video recreation of how the plane twisted and turned in the last 27 seconds,” he said. Very chilling.”

Yes, chilling is the perfect description. I have seen that re-creation, and although it was hard to watch, I cannot imagine what it was like for the family members, knowing that their loved ones were on that plane.

Who thought that going to a movie and munching on popcorn could bring additional havoc into your life?

In all honesty, I did.

This is an excerpt of Karen F. Wielinski’s forthcoming book, “One on the Ground,” which will be published in February, 2017.

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