CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the kind of good news people needed in the midst of the bad economic outlook. Many people went as far as calling it a miracle. And, of course, America had a new hero, at least for a time.
The successful crash landing of an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 saved the lives of the 155 on board — and potentially many others on the ground. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York called it “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
But was Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III’s picture-perfect water landing really a miracle? The answer might depend on your perspective.
“Obviously, in an expanded sense of the word, you could call it a miracle,” said Christopher Chapman, director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, “but to be theologically accurate, we might better call it ‘Grace on the Hudson.’ God’s true miracles exhibit great clarity, in that divine intervention has to be obvious.”
Chapman attributed the survival rate on US Airways Flight 1549 to a combination of human expertise and circumstances — the fact that the water was calm and nearby rescue vessels were available.
“We would expect a major airline to have experienced pilots, so a potentially successful landing was not that far-fetched. I would call it an act of God’s providence. A real miracle might have been if an 8-year-old had landed the plane,” Chapman said.
The Church teaches that Christ promised to continue miracles throughout history; however, it also teaches that the Church admits to a miracle only when all natural explanations for an event have been exhausted. Widespread belief does not enter into the equation.
Chapman was willing to admit, however, that survivors of the Hudson crash and their families may tend to be a bit less objective about their version of a miracle. One man whose life continued post accident d’avion had every reason to think that it would not and clearly saw the hand of God in his survival.
Frederick Berretta Jr. is a private pilot who was in seat 16A, one row behind the left wing. He saw both engines flame out and knew the great odds against a commercial jet remaining intact during a water ditch. On top of that, Berretta had made a New Year’s resolution to get in better spiritual shape, as he put it, and had been working on extra devotions, including the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Although he rarely gets to daily Mass because of his hectic work schedule as a financial services executive, he ended his New York trip with the Eucharist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral — “my favorite church in all the world,” he said.
Later that day, when he knew Flight 1549 was going down, he thought God had set him up.
“‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘God has prepared me to meet him,’” Berretta said. “I asked God to be merciful to us. I had reconciled myself and did accept God’s will, but it was hard.”
Hard because the 41-year-old has a wife and four children back home in Charlotte. They are parishioners at St. Matthew’s Church. Happily, Liz Berretta was picking up their children at their Catholic schools and didn’t know about the crash until she got home and heard from her living husband. He called from the ferry that rescued him.
Fred Berretta also found it hard to comprehend how much went through his mind during the final seconds of a flight that lasted but six minutes from takeoff to crash landing at about 3:30 p.m.
“I tried to collect myself, talked to the guy next to me, said a Hail Mary and an Our Father, and realized as I prayed for mercy that the three o’clock hour is the mercy hour (the hour when Jesus Christ died). I wondered how death would come to us, and I remember praying to St. Michael. I thought about my wife and children and what I was leaving behind. I was amazed at how much I was able to process in such a short time,” he said.
Also on board was Clay Presley, 54, a Catholic who later told the Charlotte Observer he felt at peace throughout, and that he was reminded to count his many blessings, including his family and always doing the right thing.
Other passengers shared their experiences with the Observer, as well. Don Norton, who is unchurched, is still trying to figure out why he was saved. While bracing himself for a crash, the self-styled nonreligious person said a prayer and kept repeating it: “Please, God, don’t let me die. Please, God, don’t let me die …”
Presley, president of a fashion stationery company, said he text-messaged an “I love you” to his wife, and the thought of possibly dying brought calm, not terror.
“I knew I was in God’s hands,” he said. “I wasn’t in control. I was at peace.”
David Sanderson of Charlotte, 47, a United Methodist, said his own prayer from seat 15A, asking Jesus to forgive his sins and give the pilot strength.
“God put that pilot on that plane for a reason,” Sanderson said, breaking down for the first time since he saw his children waiting for him at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. “And I think he put me on that plane for growth. It was my time to stretch.”
He feels that God wants him to talk about it with others, to tell them what a precious thing life is.
So he accepted a pastor’s invitation to appear with fellow passenger Sanderson at a church in Weddington, N.C.
“God wants me to tell people about this and show appreciation,” he said. “Because this is going to give me appreciation for life like I’ve never had before.”
Confluence of Events
As he told the Register, Berretta is tempted to call the survival of every single person on board the plane a miracle because, he said, of the huge convergence of factors that came into play during those fateful minutes: They hit no other plane in a busy airspace as they quickly descended without power, missing the George Washington Bridge by less than 1,000 feet; the river was calm; no boats were in the way, although many were close enough to take them off the wings in minutes, when prolonged exposure surely would have meant hypothermia to at least some of them; the plane floated intact, despite stress on it; and the fact that all the passengers remained calm enough to exit and assist one another as water breached the fuselage.
“I’m grateful to God and humbled by the experience,” Berretta said. “It certainly firmed up my belief in the power of prayer.”
To which theologian Chapman would conclude: “Amen.”
Paul A. Barra writes from
Reidville, South Carolina.