01/20/09 — Ex-Cell CEO shares his story of water landing on Hudson River

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Ex-Cell CEO shares his story of water landing on Hudson River

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on January 20, 2009 1:46 PM

When Barry Leonard boarded his flight home last Thursday afternoon, he wasn't surprised to see Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger in the cockpit.

"I've seen him many times on this route," said Leonard, president and chief executive officer of Ex-Cell Home Fashions, one of Goldsboro's largest and most successful manufacturing companies.

Leonard spends a lot of time in the Airbus 320 and similar commercial aircraft, traveling back and forth between Charlotte and his office in New York.

"I fly it every week," he said.

But US Airways Flight 1549 was nothing like the hundreds of times he had previously made the trip, and only the actions of Sullenberger, a former Air Force fighter pilot, averted what could have been a tragedy, he said.

"About three minutes after takeoff, there was sort of a loud bang," Leonard said. "It sounded like tennis shoes inside a dryer."

After that, things became frighteningly quiet aboard the aircraft.

"The fact that there was not any noise was not a good sign," Leonard said. "We were gliding."

The engines had failed completely and the A320 was coasting without power.

It was clear that something had gone wrong. Although the plane's wings were not visible from Leonard's aisle seat in the front row, he said that other passengers reported seeing flames shooting out from the engines.

"We could smell smoke," he said.

The disabled plane swung around in the air, passing low over buildings, ferries and a bridge. Sullenberger came on the intercom to make an emergency announcement.

"The captain said 'brace for impact,'" Leonard said. "The flight attendants were saying 'brace, brace, brace' in unison. It was very eerie."

Sullenberger managed to guide the gliding plane safely away from the busy New York and New Jersey shores and ditch it in the river, ultimately saving the lives of all 150 passengers and five crew members.

The landing, though miraculous, was anything but smooth.

"When impact happened, it happened to be right in the middle between two ferries," Leonard said. "It was just an unbelievable jolt. I can't answer now why the plane did not flip over. I do not understand how the plane stayed together."

As the A320 came to a stop in the river, it didn't sink, but remained floating just above the surface.

"I remember looking out the window and seeing water," Leonard said. "I thought we were underwater."

Seated in the front row, Leonard was one of the first passengers to escape the downed plane when the flight attendants unsealed the hatch.

"They opened the door, and it was cold water. They said jump and I did, and I started swimming," he said.

It didn't take more than a minute in the river for Leonard to realize that the water was dangerously cold, and the riverbank was too far away for him to make it out without help.

"There was no way I could survive swimming to either shore," he said. "It was one of the coldest days of the year."

By then, the flight attendants had inflated the life rafts and more people were coming out of the plane. Leonard swam back and boarded one of the rafts.

"I was shaking uncontrollably," he said.

Even suffering from the extreme temperature, Leonard stopped to help a man and woman climb into the raft. More of the shocked passengers emerged from the plane and stood on the wing, even as it sank slightly beneath the river's surface.

"It looked like such a unbelievable scene, it looked like people were standing on water," he said.

Then the ferries arrived.

"This guy came over to me and said 'sir, you've got to get your clothes off,'" Leonard said.

He was standing in the raft, wearing only wet underclothes in the 32 degree air and huddling with other passengers for warmth, when a man in a pilot's uniform took off his shirt and offered it to Leonard.

"He gave me his shirt," said Leonard. "He said, 'sir, you're going to be OK. 'I have no idea who it was."

He still has the shirt, and Good Morning America is searching for the Good Samaritan, Leonard said.

"The people on the ferry were unbelievable," he said.

The ambulances were waiting by the time the first ferry made it to shore, and the emergency medical personnel set up a triage area at the ferry station.

The passengers in the freezing water were at serious risk for hypothermia.

"If we didn't have it, we were damn close to it," Leonard said.

And beyond the force of the crash and the danger of the elements, there was another concern.

"I was experiencing a lot of pain in my chest," Leonard said.

His blood pressure spiked to about 180/110, and he was taken to the hospital for tests.

"I'm still in a tremendous amount of pain," especially when he moves, he said. "And now I'm starting to move around."

Everyone involved with the rescue effort, from the people on the ferries to the doctors and nurses at the hospital, did their best to help the Flight 1549 passengers.

"The people have been amazing. The hospital's been terrific," Leonard said. "Obviously, the pilot is a hero."

Leonard's cell phone is at the bottom of the Hudson river, and his waterlogged laptop is still on the plane. When his wife flew to New York to be with him, Leonard borrowed her phone to speak with concerned friends and family and members of the media.

"We were all extremely lucky," he said.

In the past few days, Leonard received a flood of notes from people around the country, including some from Goldsboro.

"I would like to say to the people of Goldsboro, thank you for your support," he said.

He hoped to be discharged from the hospital and return home as soon as possible.

"I look forward to getting back to work," said Leonard. "This is a new beginning for me."