|Sully Sullenberger and his wife Lorraine with Orlaith, Kathleen and Ciaran Staunton |
last week in O’Neill’s. (Photo by Sean McPhail)
They say you should never meet your heroes in case you are disappointed, but in the case of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the opposite is true.
I had the great pleasure of meeting the man responsible for the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when he saved the lives of the crew and 155 passengers on a US Airways flight en route to North Carolina by executing a perfect landing on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.
Earlier last week Sully, who has Swiss and Irish heritage, had appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show where he met 10 little babies born to passengers since that miracle day, and to recount the story of the incredible landing.
Sully’s bravery that day was one of the greatest feel good stories of its time, but his heroism does not end there.
Since that day he has resolved to continue his efforts to make air travel safer and also to ensure, based on pre-flight check lists, that hospital procedures, especially in emergency rooms, are greatly improved.
On January 15 Sully met with my family, my sister Orlaith and brother-in-law Ciaran Staunton, who lost their son Rory, a dedicated flier in the making who considered Sully his hero.
Rory died from sepsis last April after catastrophic medical mistakes were made in his care at NYU Langone Hospital in New York after he suffered a scrape in a basketball game at his school.
Rory’s battle for life was featured in The New York Times, and the coverage included his admiration and hero worship for Sully.
Sully read the article and contacted Ciaran and Orlaith, so a meeting was finally set up for last week.
It turned out to be a wonderful dinner at O’Neill’s, which the Stauntons own, in Midtown Manhattan as relatives and friends of Orlaith and Ciaran gathered. Sully, his charming wife Lorraine, and daughter Kelly also attended.
Sully sat down and read Rory’s term paper on him in its entirety, asked every question about Rory and his love of flying and what kind of child he was.
Sully was the polar opposite of so many self-obsessed “celebrities,” a title that does not fit easily on this former Air Force fighter pilot.
There was self–deprecating humor too, when discussing that fateful day and when he finally got off the plane after the most traumatic experience imaginable.
He called US Airways and introduced himself, and the official told him he’d have to call back as one of their planes had just gone down in the Hudson. “I am the pilot,” Sullenberger told him, followed by a stunned silence.
His wife at home was on a long call to a close relative and did not immediately pick up when Sully called, and when she did she was quietly annoyed. Why was he so anxious to speak to her?
“Turn on the TV,” he told her.
Sully unselfishly gives much of the credit to his co-pilot Jeff Skiles that day, who kept his cool and calmly told him his altitude, speed and likely landing trajectory as the water rushed up to meet them and alarms were going off all over the cockpit.
Sully believes that the extraordinary safety record of major US airlines (excluding commuter flights) since the last major airline crash back in 2001 is due in large part to improved communication procedures between pilots, and check lists that ensure flying is made as safe as possible.
He believes the same system should apply in hospitals all over the world, and that it would make a profound difference in the death rate for patients killed by medical errors.
My family’s loss is the living nightmare of the consequences of such errors. Blood tests that revealed Rory’s worsening condition were never even checked.
Having someone like Sully onboard is a tremendous boost to the chances that such a checklist system will son be implemented coast to coast.
Meeting Sully would have been a huge deal for Rory, and his hero would not have disappointed him. The wild blue yonder is where they were both most at home.
So fly straight Sully, and keep up the marvelous work. You made us all so proud to meet you.