The Miracle on the Hudson Event Changed Lives and Created Lifelong Bonds

Watch the full interview on WBTV

January 15th marked the 15th anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing by Captain C.B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. Sullenberger and the crew who saved the lives of the 155 souls on board. The Airbus 320 Flight 1549 now resides in the Main Gallery at Sullenberger Aviation Museum.

It was–and is–an epic story of triumph over adversity, an effort that secured the future of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, corporate executives, teachers, and regular folks–people from all walks of life. Captain Sullenberger said that if he had lost one person aboard that he would not be able to celebrate the “miracle” at all. Since that time, he has authored several books, has spoken all over the world, and appeared on countless television programs to spread the message of aviation safety.

Many onlookers vividly remember that day and recall the feelings they experienced as they watched Flight 1549 descend into the Hudson River minutes after takeoff. Two that experienced the event first-hand were passengers Brad Wentzell and Michael Leonard. These Charlotte residents were aboard the plane when it landed in the river on that chilly day.

“I had a perfect view of that left engine where I was sitting, and it was on fire. It had sparks coming out, flames coming out,” Wentzell says. “You just knew something was wrong.”  He recalls seeing the engines on fire and thinking to himself that this may be his last flight. He remembers thinking of his daughter, who was two years old at the time. He says the memory of her baby-powder smell helped to ease his mind and calm him down. He realized that he needed to act to help other passengers to safety as the rescue teams arrived. “I said, ‘If you don’t go back and help her, you’re never going to sleep a day in your life,’ and then I made the decision that, in my opinion, changed my life,” Wentzell stated. “I chose being helpful over me.”

Photo courtesy of Sullenberger Aviation Museum. Listen to the full 30-minute interview with Wentzell and Leonard on WBTV here. This interview was conducted by Claire Kopsky in December 2023 at the final home of the Miracle on the Hudson Airbus 320 – Sullenberger Aviation in Charlotte.

Leonard, a Belk employee at the time, was on board with fellow coworkers and recalls never thinking of death during the rescue. He credits Captain Sullenberger for his skill under fire and cool head during the entire experience. He recalls not being able to fully process what happened for weeks afterward. Hearing the stories of his fellow coworkers was a pivotal moment for him and connected him to his own feelings about it all.

“It wasn’t until Monday after the crash when my company brought in a therapist for the six of us who [were] on the flight to talk to,” he says. “And I’m sitting there with five colleagues, all women who I work with, and hearing their stories, and every single one of them makes me cry.”

Having experienced such a devastating thing both men now live life with more of a purpose and continue to face their fears head on.

“I have a richer, fuller life than I did before,” Leonard says. “I’m doing things professionally as a keynote speaker that I never anticipated. I never thought I’d be good at it. I was never one who sought the limelight or wanted to be the life of the party, or was comfortable talking in front of big groups, and now it’s amazing what you can learn to do and become good at.”

Today, Wentzell has four kids and could not have asked for a better outcome from being given a second chance at life.

Leonard moved on from his career at Belk and started his own journey as an entrepreneur making commercial signage. He states, “Ever since that day I have looked at life differently. So many good people did everything right that day and that’s why we all survived the crash. The mindset of getting things right, doing whatever it takes to get the job done is the attitude and commitment I bring to QC Signs & Graphics. Our team is committed to providing the best possible service to each and every customer.”

Furthermore, the bond that passengers and crew share with one another and the now retired Captain Sullenberger is one that they all agree cannot be broken. They share a special moment that places them in a rare class of individuals who defied the odds. Each passenger cherishes life a bit more, honors their time here on earth, and encourages others to live fully.

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