LAKE WYLIE -- From seat 15F, a window seat, Larry Snodgrass, about 3,000 feet above New York City inside a metal tube, heard the explosion.
"I could see the flames coming out of the engine," Snodgrass said.
A guy who flies in airplanes almost every week, Snodgrass knew explosions a couple of minutes after take-off are bad. Flames are worse.
"But I thought for sure we could make it back to LaGuardia and land," Snodgrass said. "It was very quiet on board. You could hear a baby crying, and another child. Tranquil, even."
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Snodgrass did not say a word, nor grip the hand of the thin man in seat 15E whose shoulder was rubbing against Snodgrass' shoulder aboard Flight 1549.
"I remembered thinking before that I was happy I had a skinny guy next to me, and I'm a big guy who likes room," he said.
The plane banked and dropped. Prayers that were silent became audible around him. Then, three words Snodgrass said he will remember forever came over the loudspeaker from a pilot who will be known forever as "Sully" but could be called Superman: Prepare for impact.
No longer was Larry Snodgrass the national sales manager for a chemical company on a business trip who had worries about this big presentation in Texas next week. He grabbed his laptop then threw it on the floor, realizing gigabytes mattered not. His mind flashed to his son, J.P., in Florida and his daughter, Lindsay, the horse trainer in Texas, both grown now. He saw in his brain his 88-year-old mother in Akron, Ohio, who on that brutally cold morning shoveled snow from her own sidewalk.
At exactly 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Larry grabbed his cell phone and like quicksilver wrote a text message to his wife, Carol. He had just sent one a few minutes before that said he was leaving.
"We have an engine on fire. I love you with all my heart. Tell the kids I -- " then two scrambled words that are understandably misspelled when you are looking out the window of seat 15F and the plane you are in with 154 other people is about to crash into New York's Hudson River.
By this time Snodgrass' prayers were mingled among the chorus of so many prayers aloud on this plane that had more than one cry of panic in the mix.
"We were maybe a couple hundred feet over the water," Snodgrass said.
This pilot that the world now knows as Sully, Chesley Sullenberger III, then somehow slid this Airbus 320, supposed to be bound for Charlotte, on to this famous river like a glider landing in a field of waving summer rye.
"It was happening so fast. And then we landed, strong but smooth," Snodgrass said. "Things were flying around, but I opened my eyes in disbelief and so many other people did, too; and I was alive, and so were they."
If that wasn't enough to change Snodgrass' life, what happened without a second's pause sure did.
"I was thinking to myself, 'If I can get out of here alive, I still have my wife, my kids, my health,'" Snodgrass said.
The plane started sinking. Certain death had been punched in the mouth, but drowning sure slavered like a troll under a bridge.
"Every man I saw started helping ladies out, the kids," Snodgrass said. "Almost everybody seemed more concerned with the person on their left or right. Sure, there was a couple of people climbing over seats, trying to get out, but it was all surprisingly calm. It was ... harmony."
Snodgrass was doing what so many were doing, pulling others to safety before him, toward those doors two rows in front of him that had been popped open. The back doors of the plane had been kept closed to keep the plane from sinking even faster, so Snodgrass hauled people from the back of the plane by their clothes. He pushed others. He lifted others. Manners were not on his mind.
Some passengers went out with a splash into the icy water. Others went out the left to the left wing. More to the right wing. About 45, maybe 50, ended up on that right wing that already had started to freeze. Snodgrass was the second-to-last to go through the door to that wing. He wore slacks, a pair of slip-on black loafers, a shirt and leather jacket.
What he found as he stepped out was people at the tip of the wing, up to their shoulders in the water, with feet somehow clinging to the wing. The temperature in New York right that minute was 19 degrees. The water wasn't much warmer. The middle of the wing had people waist-deep in the churn. Snodgrass was up to his shins near the plane's body as the red life vests were thrown from the plane by the last few people to get out and thrown from the rescue boats that were arriving.
"People were grabbing each other, hugging and sharing clothes to keep warm," Snodgrass said. "It was like a family out there, the bunch of us. People looking out for somebody who needed them. Out there on the wing, exposed to that cold, was so brutally cold. It's as cold as I have ever been. I remember thinking I was going to lose my hands, it was so cold."
Snodgrass, a technology nut, had somehow kept that cell phone in the pocket of that jacket.
All this had taken exactly 12 minutes.
What does Larry Snodgrass do on that wing, the water at his shins and rising?
He whips out that phone again and calls his wife, Carol. Carol had admittedly "thought the worst" after that text saying the engine was on fire. She was distraught and crying and finally got in front of a television to watch this nightmare unfold on live TV.
"And now I see the number come up, and it is Larry and he says, 'I made it,' and I say, 'Thank God,' and he says, 'I will call you back as soon as I can,'" said Carol Snodgrass, who now and forever loves cell phones.
Larry hung up and, with water rising, started taking pictures.
"I thought to myself, 'If I ever have grandkids, they might like these one day,'" he said.
He took pictures of a man in a white shirt and black tie -- that was all there was to see above the water -- reaching for a life preserver that had been thrown to him. A woman in the drink waiting for one of the many boats that had arrived so quickly to grab her. More pictures, and not one of panic.
One of himself that will live forever, the New York skyline in the background.
Still on that wing were so many. Some ended up in one of those gray inflatable slides that turn into rafts that anybody who has ever flown has seen on the safety film while wondering when the lunch will be served. Snodgrass then was in that raft and people were trying to climb onto rescue boats from the raft and water.
By this time, the metal ladder to get onto the ferry that was alongside the plane was covered with ice. Fingers slipped as burly guys from the ferry grabbed hands, shoulders, belts and pants and anything they could hold to bring one after another from that plane up on board. Through it all, Snodgrass pushed others ahead of him to get on that boat as the plane continued to sink.
He was the second-to-last one off the raft into the ferry. Up until waiting for rescue, time had sped by. On the wing, in the raft, in the cold, "took forever," he said.
"Then I was climbing up and a pair of hands just grabbed me and tugged so hard and pulled me up," Snodgrass said.
And all of a sudden, Snodgrass knew he was going to survive.
Almost immediately, he found out that everybody else had gotten off alive, too.
The ferry, just like the ones that people ride from Staten Island and New Jersey to and from Manhattan, whipped him and the others to the Jersey shore.
Blankets came to all. Everybody on board got fresh, warm, white socks. All shoes were soaked and unwearable. It was easy to tell who'd been on the plane.
"White socks, no shoes, you were one of us," Snodgrass said.
A cup of hot cocoa "tasted like heaven." Everybody got an American Red Cross blanket and Mickey Mouse doll. Snodgrass kept the doll in case he ever has grandkids.
A celebration of so many strangers now tied forever by a common miracle turned "a bit raucous and loud, yes," Snodgrass said. "Happy? Happy doesn't cover it."
Snodgrass called his wife to say he loved her.
A couple of hours later back at the LaGuardia terminal, Snodgrass was offered a strong drink but wanted a Guinness beer. Draft.
"Oh, did it taste good," he said.
But Larry Snodgrass wanted to come home to Lake Wylie. Carol, his wife, begged him to drive and she would meet him halfway. But Snodgrass and 10 others arranged to take the latest flight home to the Charlotte airport.
But first, that plane had to take off.
His heart was in his throat until the plane passed 3,000 feet.
"But it was fine after," he said. "I've flown since 1979. It was a little tough until then, though."
In the air, more than one drink was shared. Toasts were offered. E-mail addresses and phone numbers exchanged. Silent smiles.
Snodgrass thought about his faith and his family and how, "I got another chance. We all did."
And how, "We all owe our lives to that man."
Sully, the pilot.
"I hope to get to meet him someday," Snodgrass remembered thinking.
Snodgrass was humbled, and he thought about how close he came to death.
"The man above decided it was not our time," Snodgrass said.
He thought about how the goodness in the world had been shown so many times in the past few hours.
"We, human beings, all have some courage and goodness in us," he said. "No one else can understand going through this unless they did."
Snodgrass arrived at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, and Carol was waiting up at the departures level, like she always does. Snodgrass didn't give a moment's thought to that presentation he has to give Tuesday in Texas. He was sure his priorities for the rest of his life had changed but wasn't sure yet what those priorities would be. He knew the first priority, though. It stood before him.
He ran into Carol's arms.
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