Second Acts is a series of interviews with interesting people who discovered new pathways midway through their lives.

Dave Sanderson
Dave Sanderson

On January 15, 2009, just moments after takeoff, US Airways flight 1549 collided with a flock of geese, which shut down the engines and resulted in the famed “Miracle on the Hudson.” Captain Sullenberger crash-landed the plane in the icy Hudson River with time to utter only three words of warning, “Brace for impact.” All 155 people onboard survived. Dave Sanderson was the last passenger off the airplane that day, followed by Sullenberger himself. Sanderson now speaks publicly about how he put his own life at risk and chose the path of service to others, which sent him in a new direction.

AK: Was the crash your moment of transformation?

DS: I had two moments that changed my life; one that day and one later, but the moment of impact was not one of them. Captain Sullenberger landed the plane perfectly, but he landed it hard—he estimates it was around 120 miles an hour—so when we hit the water, I went up and back on my seat. We all got through the plane crash, but the moment that changed my life was when I was trying to get out; it wasn’t my plan to be the last passenger off the plane.

Pictures on the news showed people standing on the wings, and it looked like an easy situation. You’re on the wings; you’ll get on the boat. But there were a lot of other things happening on that plane. People actually got on top of the seats to get out, but I was following the guy next to me, going to the aisle. The moment I hit the aisle is when my life changed, for the rest of that day and probably for the rest of my life.

My mother passed away in 1997. There was something she would say to me when I was a child, and she said it to me in that moment: “If you do the right thing, God will take care of you.” I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting off that plane, but when I got to the aisle and it was my turn next, I heard her talking to me, saying those words, and that’s when I stopped and asked myself, “What is the right thing?” Of course, the right thing is to take care of other people first. I made sure we got everybody out of the plane by helping guide people out.

When I started making my way off the plane, I got to the tenth row, where the exits were—there was no room on the wing for me and no room in the lifeboat for me. I looked up and there was a lady with a baby in the middle of the wing. I don’t know if she was just extremely scared, but she wasn’t moving and no one was moving around her—I don’t think anybody was going to try to run in front of a lady with a baby to get on the lifeboat. I got her attention and I yelled, “Throw the baby!” How do you get somebody to change? You break their state of mind. You have to shock them, and that shocked her. She actually looked at me like, “Are you crazy?” But I got her attention and that’s what changed the whole situation. Another lady who was in the lifeboat heard me and she looked up and yelled at her, “Give me the baby. Give me the baby.” The lady gave her the baby and jumped on the lifeboat, and all of a sudden, you have people helping.

I think everybody that day had a guardian angel, because there’s no reason that outcome should have been the way it was. There’s no reason that I should be here today. I was waist-deep in 36-degree water. If you talk to EMTs, they’ll tell you there’s no way I should be alive today, being in that water as long as I was. What expedited me getting off the plane was a tugboat that came to help the ferries. It hit the front of the plane and shook it. The plane was already filling with water, but then water poured in even faster. What crossed my mind was the scene in the movie Titanic when the boat started to go to the bottom of the ocean, and all I remembered was everything got sucked down with that boat, and it just went down to the bottom. I felt water coming up my back. That’s why I jumped into the river and swam to the ferryboat. I couldn’t even get on the wing. I had to go.

Doing the right thing did pay off for me. It changed my life and also altered the outcome of that day.

AK: What was the second moment that changed the direction of your life?

DS: Two Sundays after the plane crash, I spoke in my church for the first time. It was supposed to be 50 people at a Methodists’ men’s breakfast. They advertised it all over Charlotte, so about 500 people showed up! I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I said a prayer behind the curtain before I walked out on the stage, “God, give me something to say.”

There was an older lady who came up to me after I finished speaking. She interrupted a conversation I was having and grabbed me and said, “I was questioning if there was a God, and I don’t believe in miracles. But you are physical evidence that there is a God who does miracles.” She said, “Thank you,” and then she just turned and walked away. The people I was speaking to started crying after they heard this.

That’s the moment I saw that what happened to me impacted somebody else. There’s at least one person in this world who now believes in a greater being who performs miracles. I tell people when I speak, “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I go around the world speaking, because I don’t know who else may be impacted by my story.”

For more information, visit DaveSandersonSpeaks.com. You can also read stories by Dave Sanderson and other passengers on Flight 1549 in the anthology Brace for Impact.

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