The spot where a crippled jet landed a year ago on the frigid Hudson River amid panic and heroism was transformed Friday into a site of celebration as survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 joined with their rescuers to toast their unlikely survival.
Cheering and hollering, they raised their glasses at 3:31 p.m., the moment of impact, on one of the ferries that plucked them from the water. They made the toast at the approximate spot where the plane went down after a half-day of gatherings to mark the miraculous splash landing, which all survived.
At least some of the passengers had planned to make the toast with Grey Goose vodka — apparently a wry nod to the flock of geese that disabled the engine of the Airbus A320 on Jan. 15, 2009. A passenger arranged for the vodka company to provide some bottles, said Pat Smith, a spokesman for NY Waterway, the employer of ferry crews that rescued many of the 155 people aboard.
A group of passengers approached NY Waterway to ask their help in arranging the on-the-water celebration, Smith said. The ferry company donated the use of their terminal and boats for the event.
About 100 people applauded earlier in the morning as Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger — an unknown pilot when he deftly brought down the North Carolina-bound plane — arrived for a breakfast as a national celebrity, smiling and wearing his pilot's uniform.
"We're so happy to have so much to celebrate," he said. "We have so much to be grateful for," he said.
A few hours later, passengers, crew and rescuers gathered at a ferry terminal on Manhattan's West Side to embark on the river jaunt. It was a clear but chilly day, just like it was a year before, and some people were worried about going into the river.
"A little nervous," said flight attendant Doreen Welsh, who developed a fear of water after she was submerged up to her chin in the flooded aircraft. She said she began crying when another flight attendant pointed out the spot in the terminal where she had lain on a gurney after being rescued.
"It brought it all back," she said.
Dozens of the passengers on Flight 1549 participated in the day's events, including Laura Zych and Ben Bostic of Charlotte, N.C., who started dating after the splashdown's six-month anniversary.
Life, said Bostic, is "a lot better. I'm more open to opportunities. I appreciate everything."
Chimed in Zych: "We don't take anything for granted. We celebrated the one-month anniversary, two, three, four. We've been waiting for this day."
Bostic said he still feels "a little anxiety" about flying. But having Zych with him, he said, makes it easier.
Sullenberger said that, to date, he has met two-thirds of the passengers and hoped to meet all of them eventually. At the ferry terminal, he was mobbed by well-wishers, including a tearful Hannah Acton, whose husband, Patrick, was on the flight.
"Thank you so much," she said, clutching a copy of Sullenberger's book to her chest.
Later, she recalled the dread she felt after getting a call that her husband's plane had gone down, then not knowing for 23 minutes whether he was dead or alive as she watched the rescue on television.
"I was hysterical," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, now I'm watching my husband die.'"
At the morning event, Sullenberger's co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, called all the rescuers, from the fire and police departments to ferry and boat operators, "the true heroes of that day."
Skiles then made a $5,000 donation to the American Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. He made the check in the name of the victims of the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y. last February.
Bank of America, which had 20 employees on the flight, presented the Red Cross with a $21,549 donation for Haiti relief.
The return to the water has brought up mixed feelings for some of the survivors. But many were excited to reunite with the others who shared in the harrowing experience. Some say they consider the group to be a kind of family.
"It does bring back memories of being out there and what we went through," Bostic said earlier. "But with those memories, it also reinforces that gratitude we have."
Whether it's traveling together or just spending quiet time with each other, Bostic says he's intent on making sure he doesn't miss out on anything. After all, there could be another encounter with death at any time.
"If it happens," he said, "it's going to happen this time without any regrets."
"Some real friendships have formed as a result. It’s a bond like nothing else," said Pam Seagle. "Some of us have had some tough times this year and we really leaned on each other."
Zych and Bostic sat three rows away from each other and even in the midst of the frantic rescue, the two managed to notice each other.
"I had just boarded the plane and I saw her coming down the aisle," said Bostic. "But I got my book out started reading. If we had landed at the airport like we were supposed to, I don't think I would have had the chance to reconnect with her."
"There were mostly glances and maybe even small talk," said Zych. "We were in it together but because there wasn't a lot of time and we had just gone through so much trauma, there wasn't a chance to strike up a conversation.”
But the two who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, kept in touch and six months after the ordeal, they began to date.
"That day showed me that nothing is guaranteed," said Bostic. "Tomorrow’s not guaranteed so don’t let opportunities pass you by."