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'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for January 15, 2009

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

Guests:  Chris Matthews, Robert Hager, Scott McClellan, Dennis Fitch

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? The ends justify the means: The president‘s farewell address.  There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions he says of shredding the Constitution after 9/11, but there can be little debate about the results.  The speech itself—the analysis of Chris Matthews and former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

The expected backlash at the Eric Holder confirmation hearing is erased by one simple declaration from the nominee for attorney general.




OLBERMANN:  And, the perfect landing.  The hero pilots who guided their stricken aircraft into New York‘s freezing Hudson River, and the crew and the rescuers who evacuated 150 people within 90 seconds and without one serious injury.

All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.

(on camera):  Good evening.

The irony is immeasurable as the 43rd president of the United States prepared to give his farewell address tonight, full of rationalizations of his actions in the wake of 9/11, a commercial airliner crashed in New York City.  But this was neither terror nor tragedy.  Everybody survived.  Full coverage ahead.

First, Mr. Bush, and afterwards, Chris Matthews and Mr. Bush‘s former press spokesman, Scott McClellan, will join me for analysis of his speech.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the White House, the 43rd president of the United States.



Fellow citizens, for eight years, it has been my honor to serve as your president.  The first decade of this new century has been a period of consequence, a time set apart.  Tonight, with a thankful heart, I have asked for a final opportunity to share some thoughts on the journey that we have traveled together and the future of our nation.

Five days from now, the world will witness the vitality of American democracy.  In a tradition dating back to our founding, the presidency will pass to a successor chosen by you, the American people.  Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land.  This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.  And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama, his wife Michelle and their two beautiful girls.

Tonight, I‘m filled with gratitude to Vice President Cheney and members of my administration.  To Laura, who brought joy to this house and love to my life.  To our wonderful daughters Barbara and Jenna, to my parents whose examples have provided strength for a life time, and above all, I thank the American people for the trust you have given me.  I thank you for the prayers that have lifted my spirits, and I thank you for the countless acts of courage, generosity and grace that I have witnessed these past eight years.

This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house, September the 11th, 2001.  That morning terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor.  I remember standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, three days later, surrounded by rescuers who had been working around the clock.

I remember talking to brave souls who charged through smoke-filled corridors at the Pentagon, and the husbands and wives whose loved ones became heroes aboard flight 93.  I remember Arlene Howard who gave me her fallen son‘s police shield as a reminder of all that was lost and I still carry his badge.

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11.  But I never did.  Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation.  I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.

Over the past seven years, a new Department of Homeland Security has been created.  The military, the intelligence community and the FBI have been transformed.  Our nation is equipped with new tools to monitor the terrorist movements, freeze their finances and break up their plots.

And with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them.  Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets, to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.  Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.

There‘s legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results.  America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.  This is a tribute to those who toil night and day to keep us safe—law enforcement officers, intelligence analysts, homeland security and diplomatic personnel, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

Our nation is blessed to have citizens who volunteer to defend us in this time of danger.  I have cherished meeting the selfless patriots and their families, and America owes you a debt of gratitude.  To all our men and women in uniform listening tonight, there has been no higher honor than serving as your commander-in-chief.

The battles waged by our troops are a part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems.  Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience and marks unbelievers for murder.  The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.  This is the belief that gave birth to our nation, and in the long run, advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens.

When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror.  When people have hope in the future, they will not cede their lives to violence and extremism.

So, around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights and human dignity.  We‘re standing with dissidents and young democracies, providing AIDS medicine to dying patients, to bring dying patients back to life, and sparing mothers and babies from malaria.  And this great republic born alone in liberty is leading the world toward a new age when freedom belongs to all nations.

For eight years, we have also strived to expand opportunity and hope here at home.  Across our country, students are rising to meet higher standards in public schools.  A new Medicare prescription drug benefit is bringing peace of mind to seniors and the disabled.  Every taxpayer pays lower income taxes.

The addicted and suffering are finding new hope through faith-based programs.  Vulnerable human life is better protected.  Funding for our veterans has nearly doubled.  America‘s air and water and lands are measurably cleaner, and the federal bench includes wise new members like Justice Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

When challenged to our prosperity emerged, we rose to meet them.  Facing the prospect of a financial collapse, we took decisive measures to safeguard our economy.  These are very tough times for hard-working families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted.

All Americans are in this together.  And together with determination and hard work we will restore our economy to the path of growth.  We will show the world once again the resilience of America‘s free enterprise system.

Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks.  And there are things I would do differently if given the chance.  Yet, I‘ve always acted with the best interest of our country in mind.  I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.  You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.

The decades ahead will bring more hard choices for our country, and there are some guiding principles that should shape our course.  While our nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack.  Our enemies are patient, and determined to strike again.

America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict, but we have given solemn responsibilities and we must meet them.  We must resist complacency.  We must keep our resolve.  And we must never let down our guard.

At the same time, we must continue to engage the world with confidence and clear purpose.  In the face of threats from abroad, it can be tempting to seek comfort by turning inward.  But we must reject isolationism and its companion, protectionism.  Retreating behind our borders would only invite danger.

In the 21st century, security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad.  If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led.  As we address these challenges and others we cannot foresee tonight, America must maintain our moral clarity.

I‘ve often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable.  But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two, there can be no compromise.  Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere.  Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.

This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth.  We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.  President Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”  As I leave the house he occupied two centuries ago, I share that optimism.

America is a young country, full of vitality, constantly growing and renewing itself.  And even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead.  I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people.  This is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom.  This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger, and compassion in the face of suffering.

We see examples of America‘s character all around us.  And Laura and I have invited some of them to join us in the White House this evening.  We see America‘s character in Dr. Tony Recasner, a principal who opened a new charter school from the ruins of Hurricane Katrina.  We see it in Julio Medina, a former inmate who leads a faith-based program to help prisoners returning to society.  We see it in Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, who charged into an ambush in Iraq and rescued three of his fellow marines.

We see America‘s character in Bill Krissoff, a surgeon from California.  His son, Nathan, a marine, gave his life in Iraq.  When I met Dr. Krissoff and his family, he delivered some surprising news.  He told me he wanted to join the Navy Medical Corps in honor of his son.

This good man was 60 years old, 18 years above the age limit.  But his petition for waiver was granted, and for the past year, he has trained in battlefield medicine.  Lieutenant Commander Krissoff could not be here tonight because he will soon deploy to Iraq, where he will help save America‘s wounded warriors and uphold the legacy of his fallen son.

In citizens like these, we see the best of our country: resilient and hopeful, caring and strong.  These virtues give me an unshakable faith in America.  We have faced danger and trial, and there‘s more ahead.  But with the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire, never falter and never fail.

It has been the privilege of a life time to serve as your president.  There have been good days and tough days.  But every day, I have been inspired by the greatness of our country and uplifted by the goodness of our people.  I have been blessed to represent this nation we love, and I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other—citizen of the United States of America.

And so, my fellow Americans, for the final time, good night.  May God bless this house and our next president, and may God bless you and our wonderful country.  Thank you.


OLBERMANN:  President Bush speaking for just over 13 minutes,

concluding his farewell remarks from the east room of the White House in

front of just under 250 guests—you see the vice president in the center

nearly all the current and former members of his cabinet.  His daughters were there, Mrs. Bush, of course—to the right of your screen, all in red

and the invited guests, people he met along the way as he put it.  Four of them he mentioned by name.

The host of “HARDBALL,” Chris Matthews, is joining me now.

Chris, good evening.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, “HARDBALL” HOST:  Hi, Keith.  How are you?

OLBERMANN:  An acceptance speech, I guess, for an award, I don‘t know if any of the rest of us thinks he actually got them—am I wrong in feeling that the only thing that was missing tonight was another “mission accomplished” banner?

MATTHEWS:  Well, it was a scorecard that only he could design, and, of course, he did well on it.  But, in the way that today every kid gets a trophy, who participates, but I think there is a problem.  And I‘m not sure it‘s about intellectual ability, I think he has it.  It‘s about preparation for the office of the presidency.

There was a wonderful line in Shakespeare in Henry V, I guess my favorite of those plays in which the clergy sort of mocked the young warrior king and said, “Where did we find this sudden scholar?”

The scary thing about the last eight years is that George Bush, whatever you think of him, came to office pretty much tabula rasa in terms of philosophy.  He didn‘t have much.  He was a rich kid driving his father‘s car.  He got to be president because of his father, let‘s face, the same way he got into school and everything else, and the same way he got his car probably.

But what the scary about Bush is, somewhere he came to meet people like Dick Cheney, and Scooter Libby and Paul Wolfowitz and Feith, and the rest of them.  They had this ideology that he bought into.  This ideology that somehow the United States, in waging war and taking over countries, somehow was fighting for freedom, and somehow in doing, so we would encourage moderation in the Arab world.

Well, history would have thought him, and I know he just put down history by quoting Jefferson, which was unfair to Jefferson.  History would have told him in the Arab world, it‘s the Arab street; it‘s the regular people out there by the vast population and numbers who oppose the state of Israel, who have always been radicalized.  It‘s been the leaders that you could deal with, the potentates, the kings we set up over there, the British did, the people that were propped up with oil wealth.  We could deal with those people.

But the minute the street had a hand in the politics over there, it was radical.  Look what happened under him, Algeria had a chance at radical politics, and look at what we got there, a bit of taste of that.  Hamas, elected on the West Bank—that did a great deal for peace-making in the Middle East.  The election of Ahmadinejad.

The idea that somehow the mechanical nature of holding elections somehow moderates a country—he said it again in his speech tonight, that somehow elections and democracy and freedom lead to a moderation on the part of these people.  Well, these people have a problem in the Middle East.  They want to fight.  They don‘t like Israel.  They don‘t like the west.  There is a seething anger over there towards the west.

We better start to figure it out instead of retreating to these notions that he‘s been carrying around him ever since he met Dick Cheney and the neo-conservatives.

I go back to this—the scary thing about Bush is he picked up one, almost in a way that a hermit crab does, another identity in becoming president.  He didn‘t have a “book knowledge” to come to the White House with.  Having ignored and made fun at college the “pointy heads”—he called them—or the intellectuals and made fun of the smart kids at school, and hung around with the jocks.

He decided he‘s going to start listening to the intellectuals.  So, he said, “Hi, this Paul Wolfowitz is such a smart guy.  Let‘s go with this neo-conservative idea.  Let‘s go into Iraq.”  He listened to Dick Cheney, and listen to the rest of them.  And all of a sudden, he became this new scholar of freedom.  And he‘s going to spend the rest of his life selling this stuff.

This stuff cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  It costs the lives of 4,000 U.S. service people.  And we don‘t know what‘s coming around the corner in Iraq.

The Brits took over that part of the world and turned it into a series of monarchies.  We take it over and we supply it with our ideology.  Well, we‘ll see if it lasts, because in the end, the Arabs are going to have their own culture, their own politics, and down the road, we are going to have to make peace with the elements we can find to make peace with.

The idea that we have some brand new neo-conservative ideology of freedom that‘s going to bring peace over on that part of the world is not true and he is still selling it.  And that‘s the tragedy of the last eight years.  He‘s learned the wrong lessons and he‘s out there selling them again tonight—Keith?

OLBERMANN:  To the very last, to the very last.

MATTHEWS:  To the last.

OLBERMANN:  Chris Matthews of “HARDBALL”—thanks, Chris.  I‘ll see you next week.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Have a good week.


There is one unique perspective to tap into on the occasion of this last public address by this president from a man who used to speak for him.  Scott McClellan on this farewell.

And a near-miraculous ending to a plane crash in New York City, the only option: the river.  No one was seriously hurt.  And tonight we learned, the pilot used to be the safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Union and at sometimes accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Full coverage ahead here on COUNTDOWN.


OLBERMANN:  A final news conference, a final cabinet meeting, and earlier this evening, a final farewell address to the nation.  And the only things that President Bush has not said or the words the American people may want the most to hear from him “sorry” and “goodbye.”

For just 13 minutes, from the east room at the White House, just after 8:00 Eastern, the commander-in-chief making the case that he‘s done a good job running the country for the last eight years, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.  As for the rest of it, he asked Americans to remember that, at least, he made the tough calls.


BUSH:  Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks and there are things I would do differently if given the chance.  Yet, I‘ve always acted with the best interest of our country in mind.  I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.  You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.


OLBERMANN:  Former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, joins us now, author of “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and the Washington Culture of Deception.”

Good evening, again, Scott.


OLBERMANN:  “You may not have agreed with some tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”  Does it—does it matter if a president makes the tough decision if the wrong decisions are made in there time and time again and not acknowledged, as we have discussed previously?

MCCLELLAN:  No.  It shouldn‘t.  Here, he thinks that the good intention that “I did what I felt was right” should somehow outweigh his actions and his decisions, and the way he went about implementing some of those decisions.  And I think that that‘s just another terribly-mistaken view on behalf of his team as well as himself.

OLBERMANN:  One other section I‘d like to quote, “As we address these challenges and others we cannot foresee tonight, America must maintain our moral clarity.  I have spoken to you about good and evil.  This has made some uncomfortable.  But good and evil are present in this world and between the two, there can be no compromise.”

I know, Scott, the president believes that he has kept his moral clarity for these eight years.  But if the judge in charge of prosecuting or not prosecuting cases at Gitmo says, at least one of the detainees was, in the legal definition of the term, tortured, is it not fair to say that Mr. Bush‘s administration, in fact, compromised its collective moral clarity, at least one point in the last eight years?

MCCLELLAN:  Well, that‘s the problem.  It‘s hard to talk about moral clarity when you have really tarnished the government‘s moral standing—our government‘s moral in the world.  I mean, if you go back and look at the speech, it was really a fare good—you know, feel good farewell speech.  It was designed to, you know, one final chance to burnish his legacy before leaving office by highlighting his humanity, showing his humanity, his compassion, his inner decency, his good intentions.

There are really two problems that they don‘t seem to get.  First of all, the public trust.  The president, long ago, sadly, lost the public trust.  They are no longer listening to what he has to say or buying what he is selling.

You know, unless, he is willing to come out and talk candidly about his own mistakes, his own policy mistakes, and address those issues openly with the American people, then they are not really tuning in.  It‘s the same old song.  It‘s just a different variation of it.  It‘s much like listening to Charlie Brown‘s teacher.

The second part of this is, that the reason he lost the public trust was because of his actions and his policies, and the way he went about those policies or implementing those policies and selling those policies to the American people.  And I think that, you know, that you can‘t—it‘s terribly mistaken to think that good intentions and your inner decency will somehow outweigh your actions and policies, and the way you went about them with the American people.  They are terribly mistaken if they think that the American people are going to look at that as more important than what he actually did while he was in office.

OLBERMANN:  Having had that role as liaison to the media and getting, therefore, much more of the outside world to you than, perhaps, the president got when you both worked in that same building—if you had seen this speech beforehand, would you have said to him, “Don‘t say this part in this way”—“as the years past, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11.  But I never did.  Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation.  And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.”

Not that he didn‘t have the right to address this—which he would anyway—but the way that‘s phrased almost implies that before 9/11, he did not receive a briefing every morning and he was not doing everything in his power to keep us safe.  It seems like this is a wide open door for somebody to come in and go, “What does that mean?”

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, I think, you may be right on that.  You know, again, it goes back to—and the first thing I would have said about this speech, if you are going to give it, you know, you‘ve got to express candidly where your misjudgments and policy mistakes were, and accept responsibility for those—because absent that, you are not going to get people to even begin to listen and you are not going to begin to remotely alter your image in the public‘s mind.

And, you know, I think, probably, you know, this was the last big platform before he leaves office for trying to burnish that legacy.  I suspect that the next big platform for the legacy project for trying to sell his legacy will be Karl Rove‘s book.  And I suspect that in that book, it will be an attempt to shift responsibility and put blame everywhere else for everything that went wrong during the last eight years, whether it was the Katrina response, whether it was the basis for the Iraq war, the prosecution of the Iraq war, or the economy, or the poisonous Washington environment, responsibility lies everywhere else except with this president.

I think that‘s a terrible mistake.  I think, in many ways, he is a very decent human being.  He has a compassionate side.  But they are not going to substitute that for some of the most consequential policy decisions he made and misjudgments he made that are still having consequences today, lasting consequences.

OLBERMANN:  Briefly and finally and personally, Scott, knowing what you knew of this man for as long as you did and what brought you to the White House to work with him, as you watch this farewell, were there elements of tragedy from your point of view to this, or at least opportunity wasted?

MCCLELLAN:  Oh, absolutely, there was opportunity wasted.  As I said, I mean, you‘re not even going to begin to get people to really tune in and listen to what you have to say unless you express candidly where your mistakes and misjudgments were.  And the president won‘t even acknowledge a single mistake of significance.  And that‘s a problem, because you‘re not going get people to pay attention if you don‘t do that.

And so, there is plenty of opportunity missed in all these exit interviews, and the exit press conference, and the farewell speech tonight.  And I‘d hope that someday, they‘d be able to change that strategy and say, “Look, the only thing we can do at this point is openly and candidly address these issues with the American public.  Otherwise, we‘re not going to do anything to change his image in the public‘s mind.”

OLBERMANN:  Scott McClellan, author of what remains, Karl Rove or no Karl Rove, the primary historical document of this administration, the book “What Happened.”  Thank you again, Scott.

MCCLELLAN:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  The New York plane crash, which we will cover in full in a minute, not only obscured the president‘s speech, but so, too, did the confirmation hearing of the attorney general nominee Eric Holder.  Not in the way his critics had planned.  Briefly, before Senator Arlen Specter and others could try to pin him down in his role in the Clinton administration today, Holder made the kind of straight forward declarative statement about this country and about torture that eluded his predecessors.  The hearing presided over by the Judiciary Committee‘s chair, Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont. 


SEN. PAT LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  Do you agree with me that water boarding is torture and illegal? 

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE:  If you look at the history of the use of that technique, used by the Khmer Rouge, used in the Inquisition, used by the Japanese and prosecuted by us as war crimes—we prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.  I agree with you, Mr.  Chairman, water boarding is torture. 

LEAHY:  Do you believe that other world leaders would have the authority to authorize the torture of United States citizens if they deemed it necessary for their national security? 

HOLDER:  No, they would not.  It would violate the international obligations that I think all civilized nations have agreed to, the Geneva Conventions. 


OLBERMANN:  Senator Leahy then asked whether the president of the United States could use his authority as commander in chief to override acts that prohibit interrogation tactics or torture. 


HOLDER:  No one is above the law.  The president has a Constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.  There are obligations that we have, as a result of treaties that we have signed, obligations obviously in the Constitution. 


OLBERMANN:  Mr. Holder also said that “the decisions that were made by a prior administration were difficult ones,” but added “the president-elect and I are both disturbed by what we have seen and what we have heard.”  Holder reiterated the president-elect‘s position that Gitmo would be closed, though doing so would be difficult.  He vowed to repair, after a damage assessment, a Justice Department that has been tainted by political hirings and firings.

What might have been a great distraction, his involvement in President Clinton‘s pardon of financier Marc Rich, Mr. Holder admitted he had made mistakes. 

The miracle off 48th street; a crippled airliner not only avoids crashing in New York City, but the pilot executes that oxymoron of flight, a perfect water landing.  Both engines dead after a reported collision with a flock of geese during takeoff.  No chance of returning to the airport.  How did Captain Chesley Sullenberger, a sometimes accident investigator and pilots union safety chairman, do this?  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC. 


OLBERMANN:  For once, terms like incredible and amazing do not seem like hyperbole.  A passenger jet carrying 150 people lands, so to speak, in the freezing Hudson River in New York.  And not only does everybody survive, but only one passenger suffered serious injuries, in his case two broken legs.  It happened at 3:31 Eastern time.  US Airways flight 1549 to Charlotte with 150 passengers, three flight attendants, two pilots, takes off from Laguardia Airport in New York City, and within minutes was in desperate trouble. 


JEFF KOLODJAY, PASSENGER ON FLIGHT 1549:  About three or four minutes into the flight—I was sitting in 22-A.  So the left engine just blew.  Fire and flames coming out of it.  I was looking right at it, because I was sitting right there.  It started smelling a lot like gasoline.  A couple of minutes after that, the pilot said ‘brace for a hard impact.‘  You have to give it to the pilot, man.  He did a hell of a landing. 


OLBERMANN:  Another survivor said that within 90 seconds of hitting the water, all the passengers and crew were off the still buoyant craft and were quickly rescued by a variety of boats on the Hudson.  Everything from Coast Guard vessels to passenger ferries to tour boats to fire department ships showed up to help.  Most people were in rafts or on the wings of the plane, though divers did have to pull several passengers who did end up in the water, briefly. 

All 155 on board appear to be accounted for, and are recovering at hospitals and shelters.  Some have already gone home.  As to what caused the crash, air traffic controllers say the pilot, Captain Chesley Sully Sullenberger, apparently hit a flock of birds, possibly geese, and lost thrust in both the plane‘s engines about 30 seconds after takeoff.  There were enough birds that they showed up on radar. 

He tried to return to Laguardia or then hoped to go to nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, but ended up instead placing down in the river.  The Coast Guard currently keeping the plane afloat on the banks of the Hudson near the southern end of Manhattan.  As you see in this shot now, the plane never was fully submerged at any point, since it hit the Hudson.  As the National Transportation and Safety Board begins its official investigation into the accident. 

The survivor stories and a past hero of miracle crash landing evaluates the work of today‘s hero presently.  First, what do we think happened?  Joining us now by phone, NBC News aviation analyst, correspondent Robert Hager.  Bob, thanks for your time tonight. 

ROBERT HAGER, NBC NEWS AVIATION ANALYST:  Hi, Keith.  This was just something, wasn‘t it?  Just miraculous.  What a heroic act. 

OLBERMANN:  Obviously, we know that birds can cause interruptions in jet engines.  That‘s been told time and time again.  It is perhaps the most underrated thing that can happen in terms of airline safety.  The idea that an Airbus, a huge A-320 could lose both its engines to living birds.  Have you ever heard of such a thing before? 

HAGER:  Yes.  A goose, if these were indeed geese, that is a pretty big bird.  That can do a lot of damage.  They used to test this by throwing turkey carcasses into engines on the ground.  They can really tear an engine up badly.  Yes, I can imagine that happening, absolutely. 

OLBERMANN:  And what he did then, the captain, how do you put a crippled plane down on the Hudson River in January, rather than into the Hudson River?  How do you not sink it on the way in, or even if you are good enough to place it on top of the water surface, how do you keep it afloat? 

HAGER:  Well, that was just a wonderful landing that he made, or ditching, in this case, properly called, in the water.  They teach it on the simulators and so forth, the proper way to ditch a plane in the water.  People talk about it as being sort of futile.  The legend has always been that if a plane hits the water, it quickly becomes a submarine. 

Hitting the water is like hitting concrete.  That water is hard when you hit it at any speed.  What he had to do here was bring this plane in very slowly, very easily.  And the technique they normally teach is to keep the tail low so that the tail hits the water first.  And then you gently set the nose down.  The tail would act as kind of a drag and slow the plane down. 

The opposite—if you put the nose down and accidentally hit it that way, you could sink immediately, if the nose shot down through the water or it just catches on the water and that would flip the plane over.  That is what you really don‘t want to happen, is the plane flip over or skid sideways or something like that, because that would break the fuselage open.  The water would come pouring in and the plane would then sink. 

OLBERMANN:  This statistic that is being thrown about tonight on ditching, that only 20 percent of the ditches in the last quarter century resulted in fatalities.  If there is an option, is it smarter for the captain to try to go into the water and not try a risky landing, because his last communication to that tower was he was going to try for Teterboro in New Jersey.  Obviously, he changed his mind.  Did he think he was not going to have enough control to put it down in Teterboro?   

HAGER:  I think he Had to believe he was not going to make Teterboro.  They said he was only at 900 feet as he crossed over the George Washington Bridge.  He is losing altitude very fast.  Given that congested environment of New York City, and the damage you do on the ground if you hit that plane on the ground, not only is everybody in the plane probably get killed, but also you bring down buildings and kill people on the ground as well. 

The river was his best shot at it.  Fortunately—a lot of these ditchings are in the ocean, where you‘ve got waves and things like that to contend with.  But the fact this is the river, with the relatively smooth water, that certainly helped. 

OLBERMANN:  And lastly, the evacuation, have you ever heard of such a thing, 90 seconds perhaps? 

HAGER:  That is wonderful.  Imagine when your flight lands and they open the doors, and say OK, everybody file out now, how long it takes to empty an aircraft.  That was amazing that they could do it so fast.  And as it looked from the pictures, the plane did take a lot of time before it sank deeply enough into the water to where the water would have been a true hazard inside. 

So they did have apparently more time than certainly I would have imagined anybody would have.  That was just something they were all able to do it that fast. 

OLBERMANN:  Robert Hager, NBC News aviation analyst.  Bob, always a pleasure. 

HAGER:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  The survivors tell of the sounds of an explosion, the warning from the captain to brace for the impact.  Within 90 seconds, 150 passengers, plus the crew, shepherded to safety by the flight attendants and the pilot, who was literally the last person off the craft.  The survivors story from inside the plane and on the boats and the pilot‘s story when COUNTDOWN continues. 


OLBERMANN:  God forbid you or I are ever in a plane crash.  But if we are, we should be so lucky as those who were on US Airways flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte this afternoon.  After what appears to have been a midair collision with a flock of geese, even as the plane was still ascending after takeoff, the pilot put the crippled aircraft down on the Hudson River like a glider.  One of the passenger suffered two broken legs.  But none of the other 154 souls on board was even seriously injured.  The story of the textbook crash told by one survivor. 


KOLODJAY:  Myself and five others that we were traveling down with to Myrtle Beach for our annual golf trip.  We actually had a flight on Spirit Airlines.  Unfortunately, that got canceled, so we got bumped to this flight.  It was nuts, man.  We took off and the engine blew about three minutes in the flight, the left engine, where I was sitting. 

Fire just started blowing out that left engine pretty hard.  I have flown out of Laguardia a lot, so I‘m kind of familiar with the runway.  I thought we were going to be able to circle around.  But then the captain just said, you know, just brace for impact. 

I remember we probably dropped about 100 feet.  If that was a goose that took down a plane, man, that is nuts.  I don‘t know.  It was really scary.  All the guys on the plane did a great job in making sure that, you know, women and children got off first.  And we just made sure of that and we all hopped into a couple of life rafts that started to sink. 

But, I guess, New York—I don‘t know—the ferries, four or five ferry boats that came over and started throwing out life jackets when we were going down.  And the response was great.  So kudos to the pilot and kudos to the people that helped get us on board.  I don‘t know how long we could have stayed in that water.  It is pretty cold. 

You never prepare for something like this.  I don‘t know.  I‘m sorry.  I‘m kind of gargled.  I‘m scatter-brained right now.  And just happy to be standing here.  And I guess with all these people asking questions.  God bless, man.  I‘m happy that everyone on that plane lived. 


OLBERMANN:  The untold story of fear on the ground, from being in a plane crash, to realizing that a loved one was on board a plane that had crashed.  One of the anchors at our affiliated station WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina experienced that horror this afternoon. 


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Well, there were some tense emotional moments here at NBC 17, because our own Donald Jones‘ father was on that plane that went down in the Hudson River.  Fortunately, your father is OK, thank god.  You haven‘t spoken to him yet.  You have spoken to your mom. 

DONALD JONES, NBC 17:  I haven‘t.  Fortunately, he is OK, and fortunately a lot of other people are OK.  That pilot, the crew—and boy, so many people like myself, family and friends right now saying, what a phenomenal job and basically, yes, we‘ve heard the word is a miracle to see this happened. 

I have not talked with him specifically.  I‘m still waiting.  I got two phones.  I can‘t wait for the call.  And I‘d like to just see him.  I wish we could—we see this all the time.  I‘m looking for video across all the channels, going, show him to me, although I know he is safe. 

My mom got the call.  Fortunately, she did not know about this.  You and I were in the news room.  And you were with me.  Thank you for your support.  Seeing this on MSNBC.  I found out it was his flight.  My mom gets the call and he just said, honey, my plane just crashed.  He was shaking and sounded upset. 

She said, why are you so upset.  Obviously, you‘re upset.  Are you OK? 

Are you OK?  Are you OK?  He said, I‘m freezing because I had to jump in. 

The doors flew open and I jumped in. 


OLBERMANN:  And the man who made it all happen, from putting the plane down atop the Hudson River in extraordinary wind chills to, literally, before it went underwater, walking the length of the craft twice to make sure everyone got off safely, the heroism of the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, assessed next by one of the heroes of United 232‘s crash in Sioux City 20 years ago, next on COUNTDOWN.


OLBERMANN:  A fuller picture of the extraordinary scene in New York today just breaking at this hour.  It has been provided just now by another one of the survivors, a passenger named Joe Hart, who said simply, of the last moments of the flight, both engines cut out and he, the pilot, actually floated it into the river. 

You might see him on your way in.  You might exchange grunted goodbyes on the way out.  And then again, you might wind up owing your life to his or her experience and his or her presence of mind.  We close the COUNTDOWN tonight with the story of the right pilot in the right place.  A trained Air Force fighter pilot, former safety chairman of the pilot‘s union, sometimes accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. 

U.S. flight 1549, New York to Charlotte, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III your pilot; 150 passengers, three flight attendants, two pilots all believed safe at this hour.  Though both engines were knocked out just after they left the ground, most likely by a flock of geese, though the only landing strip available among the concrete canyons of Manhattan, the icy waters of the Hudson River and ditching. 

The captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, 40 years of flying experience, 29 as a US Airways pilot, seven as an F-4 fighter pilot in the Air Force.  The captain reportedly walked the plane twice after the evacuation.  Following the amazing ditching, he was the last one in the aisles as the plane became partially submerged by the waters of the Hudson River. 

Let‘s bring in by phone former United Airlines pilot Denny Fitch, who along with the captain led the remarkable landing of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa in July of 1989, when an engine failed, causing the loss of all three hydraulic systems aboard that craft.  A great pleasure to have you with us, sir. 

DENNY FITCH, FMR. PILOT:  Thank you.  I‘m glad to be here.  I‘m glad to be anywhere. 

OLBERMANN:  I would imagine.  Everyone on that flight shares your feeling and everyone on the flight today.  Can you describe for us as best you can what the pilots would have likely experienced as the aircraft suffered the multiple bird strike that Captain Sullenberger described and what they have been immediately faced with? 

FITCH:  Well, the first thing that needs to noted is the weather conditions were favorable.  That was on their side.  They had BFR weather, as we call it.  That allowed them cloud cover above and visibility ahead.  They probably would have seen the geese at the last minute.  The next thing they would have heard is probably compressor stalls.  I think one of your witnesses said he saw engine fire, flames coming out of the left engine.  I wouldn‘t be surprised if that was the case on the right. 

Both of those engines would have instantaneously lost at least a substantial part of their power, if not all of it.  He attained an altitude of 3,000 feet.  Considering the fact that he saw an airport in the distance, he quickly evaluated, as he was getting the characteristics under control, that he just wasn‘t going to make it across to Teterboro, and wisely took the water landing. 

The conditions on the river are much better than you would ever want to take on the ocean. 

OLBERMANN:  What would he have had available to him after that bird strike?  He would have had control but no ability to generate any further power? 

FITCH:  Yes, I think his power—it sounds from what we know so far that he had negative power.  So what he was basically doing was trading air speed, or altitude that is, for air speed.  And that, my guess would be, in most jets, you can get 200 knots.  That‘s about 220 miles an hour.  You can get a sink rate of about 1,000 to 1,100 feet a minute. 

From what they told me crossing the bridge and landing on the river,  it sounds like that‘s exactly what he did.  He just maintained a good glide speed.  It looks like he still had some of his takeoff flaps extended.  He never did retract those, so he had additional lift from those, because they already out.  He just used the flight. 

When he got down to the water, he just nursed it on to getting it slower and slower and slower, until it was at minimum forward speed that he could afford to let it touch.  By doing that, of course, he cut down the physical forces that he was going to encounter when he did touch the water. 

OLBERMANN:  Give me your assessment of this, the resume of this man.  Captain Sullenberger‘s extra experience, safety chairman of the Pilots Association, participates in accident investigations.  How might that background have impacted his decision making at crunch time today? 

FITCH:  Well, not only that—I think that is an added plus.  Most pilots go to school every day.  Every time something happens in aviation, it is a negative or what we call hangar flying.  You‘ll hear pilots say boy, I was up there and this happened to me, and you take it and you put it in your file drawer.  Because it didn‘t happen to you, you are getting tuition paid by somebody else to learn a lesson. 

I think he got that in spades, because when you investigate accidents, obviously you come to conclusions on what happened and what the pilot did right or did not do right.  From that point of view, he had a bigger file drawer than perhaps most of us did. 

OLBERMANN:  Any way to assess how much of this—you mentioned the great weather conditions, and the circumstances of the calm river as opposed to a turbulent ocean.  Is there any way of looking at something like this and saying—breaking it up into percentages, what percentage was unbelievable skill and what percentage of it was unbelievable luck. 

FITCH:  Well, I give motivational speeches.  I start out with every audience with a show of hands, three questions: how many of you believe in luck?  How many of you believe in fate?  How many of you believe in God or a higher being?  It‘s an interesting conclusion.  But the bottom line of the whole thing is I just simply say, we often look at the same circumstance, and depending on where you are coming from, you tend to put different labels on it. 

OLBERMANN:  All that matters is they are down. 

FITCH:  He did a fantastic job. 

OLBERMANN:  Whoever it was, and whatever did it, the co-pilot of United 232 from Sioux City in 1989.  Great thanks again for your time. 

FITCH:  You bet.  God bless all. 

OLBERMANN:  That is COUNTDOWN for this the 2,077th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.



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