Video: Hero pilot, crew get keys to NYC

updated 2/9/2009 11:26:20 AM ET 2009-02-09T16:26:20

Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his crew with keys to the city on Monday, calling them "five real American heroes."

Sullenberger stressed that, while he's gotten a lot of the credit, it was a team effort. He praised the crew, emergency responders and the passengers.

Sullenberger ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the frigid Hudson River when a flock of birds disabled the plane's engines on Jan. 15. All 155 people aboard survived.

Bloomberg said that day "could have been one of our most tragic, but became one of our most triumphant."

He said a miracle was made possible by the crew's years of experience and training.

Bloomberg told them: "Thank you for sparing our city and so many families from an awful tragedy."

The ceremony at City Hall in Manhattan followed a weekend of adulation and interviews, including a standing ovation from the audience at a Broadway performance of "South Pacific" on Saturday.

Shocking 'thud' of geese
On Sunday, Sullenberger said in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that the sound of the geese hitting the plane and the smell of burning poultry entering the cabin was "shocking."

"Oh, you could hear them," he said. "Loud thumps. It felt like the airplane being pelted by heavy rain or hail. It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard growing up in Texas."

Video: Capt. Sullenberger breaks silence The interview with Sullenberger and the other four crew members was their first since the crash landing.

Sullenberger explained that he took control of the plane from his first officer and glided it to safety, but said that in the aftermath of the emergency landing, he lay awake at night second-guessing his performance, even though everyone aboard survived.

Initial regret
He said he initially had trouble forgiving himself because he thought he could have done something different in that "critical situation."

"The first few nights were the worst," Sullenberger said. "When the `what ifs' started."

He said he no longer regrets his actions that day, calling his decision to land in the river "the only viable alternative" to attempting a return to LaGuardia Airport or landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

"The only level, smooth place sufficiently large to land an airliner was the river," he said, recalling that the plane had no thrust and was "descending rapidly."

Sullenberger, a former Air Force fighter pilot who has flown commercial planes for nearly three decades, said he knew he had to touch down with the wings level and the nose slightly up, and "at a descent rate that was survivable."

"Did you, at any point, pray?" CBS' Katie Couric asked.

"I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane," he said.

'I thought I was gone'
The flight attendants said they didn't know they were landing in the water until it happened.

"When I got out of my seat and saw that water, it was the most shocked I've ever been in my life," flight attendant Doreen Welsh said, adding that her emotions "had gone through, within seconds, accepting death and seeing life."

Slideshow: US Airways Flight 1549 crash She said she then "went crazy" and started yelling and pushing people to get them out because the impact tore a hole in the plane's tail and water poured into the cabin.

"And as I was getting up, I thought I might actually live," Welsh said. "`Cause a second ago, I thought I was gone."

Sullenberger landed the plane near two ferry terminals, and rescue boats appeared within minutes to take the 150 passengers and five crew members to safety.

When the pilot got official confirmation that everyone had survived, "I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart," he said.

The crew met some of the passengers and their relatives at a reunion in Charlotte, N.C., the destination of Flight 1549.

"More than one woman came up to me and said, `Thank you for not making me a widow,'" Sullenberger said. "'Thank you for allowing my 3-year-old son to have a father.'"

One passenger asked Sullenberger to sign his shirt.

"Where, right there?" Sullenberger replied. "You got it. Let me make it big and bold."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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