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Volunteer Reflects on Responding to the “Miracle on the Hudson”

Volunteer Reflects on Responding to the Miracle on the Hudson.
It was one of my more amazing experiences with the Red Cross.

Click here to listen to passengers and crew discuss that fateful afternoon.

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549, en route from LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, landed on the Hudson River January 15, 2009, in sub-zero temperatures, the American Red Cross responded immediately.

Greater New York Red Cross responders provided blankets, sweat suits and socks to passengers and crew members who safely evacuated to the New York Waterways Terminal at 40th Street in Manhattan. Red Cross health and mental health services were also provided to passengers and crew at the Waterways Terminal and at the Family Assistance Center set up at an airport hotel.

Long-time Red Cross volunteer Sally Phipps, director of global contributions at Colgate Palmolive, was one of the first Red Cross responders on the scene. Disaster relief volunteers, logistics personnel, licensed health and mental-health volunteers, and more, were also present. We asked Sally to recall her experience on that frigid January day.

Greater NY Red Cross (GNY): Where were you when you heard about what happened?

Sally Phipps (SP): In my office at Colgate Palmolive on Park Avenue in Manhattan, between 49th and 50th Streets. My boss called. She said, “Did you hear the news? I guess you’ll be heading over there.” I keep my Red Cross jacket on the back of my chair and I always carry my Red Cross ID. I put on my coat and headed out.

GNY: What went through your mind?

SP: The horror; at that point I didn’t know if people were okay. It was all hands on deck for the Red Cross, as it always is in an event like this.

GNY: Describe the scene at the pier.

SP: It was chaotic. There were masses of people; a lot of emergency service workers, and Red Crossers handing out blankets, hot drinks, socks and more. You could tell who the passengers were because they were wrapped in towels; some looking shocked. They were being interviewed. Someone pointed out Scully, and I was struck by his calm demeanor. He seemed really centered and calm.

I touched base with all the passengers I could see. The Red Cross was also organizing a reception center at one of the airport hotels. There were buses waiting to take passengers there. I walked back and forth between the buses and the pier, talking to the passengers and making sure they were okay. There was a spiritual health person on one of the buses, I believe a rabbi. I’ve responded to nearly every major disaster in New York City since 1998, and I’ve never heard so many people reach out and thank God.

GNY: What was your role after the buses left?

SP: I stayed a while longer, making sure there was nothing else I needed to do. I went back to the chapter, where I was on the phone with our volunteers at the hotel. I also spoke with volunteers trying to get to the hotel; interfacing with them to make sure they were in place.

GNY: You’ve said you had a remarkable experience in the days that followed. Can you tell us about that?

SP: It was one of my more amazing experiences with the Red Cross. A young woman, a passenger, asked if she could borrow my cell phone. She came back a few minutes later, handed it to me and said “Thank you.” About eight days later I got a call on my cell by a man who identified himself as the woman’s husband. He’d called to thank me. Up until his wife called him on my cell he didn’t know she was alive. I asked how she was; he said she had spent the last week being with their six-month-old daughter and being glad to be alive. In such adversity they were so incredibly thoughtful to call me.

GNY: Any additional thoughts?

SP: Oddly enough, my first response with the Red Cross as volunteer was a potential flight disaster; a flight going to Washington, D.C. There was smoke in the cockpit. The plane did an emergency turn around, and we’d been asked to go out and see what help was needed. I also responded to the Egypt Air crash in 1999. The difference between the Miracle on the Hudson and Egypt Air, to have a happy outcome, was a wonderful thing to be a part of. I want to add that Red Cross volunteers are so well trained before something like this happens that the response can be seamless. I can be sitting in my office at one moment, doing my day job, and the next be able to respond.