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'Brace yourself for impact'

A minute after Flight 1549 took off, it happened: A flock of birds got sucked into both engines, leaving the pilot with a crippled plane and the need for a split-second decision. 'Brace yourself for impact,' Chelsey B. Sullenberger told the 153 passengers aboard. Read what happened next in this Dateline transcript.

There'd been a light dusting of snow at LaGuardia earlier, but as the US Airways airbus taxied for take-off, the north-south runway was dry and bare. One-hundred and fifty passengers and a crew of five were leaving behind a frigid New York day --temperatures in the 20s -- for Charlotte, N.C..

3:26 p.m.: US Airways 1549 was wheels-up for what would be about a five-minute flight. The twin-engined jet climbed out of the city to the north. The pilot began cranking the customary left-hand turn.

3:27 p.m.: A minute in, it happened. They ran into a flock of birds, geese probably, sucked into both engines.

Jeff Kolodjay, off with his buddies for a golfing trip to Myrtle Beach, was on a window seat behind the left wing. He heard a bang: “Just a loud explosion off the left engine, smoke, fire, everything, like strong gasoline, and I was sitting in 22A, I could see it, it was right in front of me. I could see fire passing right through my window a little bit.”

Bill Zuhoski from Long Island remembered a sudden jerk: "It just felt like turbulence. It got everybody nervous for a second like any turbulence would. Nobody thought anything of it until we started to slowly go down.”

Up front at 1600 feet and sinking, the pilot had asked the tower for an emergency landing back at LaGuardia but the oxygen-starved engines were losing power-- turbine blades shredding.

The pilot looked over at New Jersey. A landing strip. "What airport is that?” he radioed.

Controller: "That's Teterboro,” a field for private planes. The pilot said he was going for it but apparently he didn't have enough plane left under him.

Passenger Joe Hart: "I actually thought we were headed for Newark, not less than a couple minutes later the right engine cut out, left engine cut out. I looked out that window and noticed we were below rooftops of Manhattan and I said, ‘This is not a good sign, we're not making Newark.’”

The pilot was lining up for a water-ditching, smack in the middle of the Hudson River.

Passenger Vince Spiro: "I [can’t] repeat what I said to the guy next to me. I said ‘You gotta be (pause) kidding me....’"

Zuhoski: "Everyone knew it was real. The people sitting next to me, we were interlocked with our arms and then you just heard the pilot: ‘Brace yourself for impact.’ How do you brace yourself for impact when your plane's about to crash?”

In the condo and office towers on both sides of the Hudson, startled witnesses saw this scene -- an eerily 9-11 sight, a low flying commercial jetliner.

This is some of the only video so far of the crippled plane, still airborne, minutes from coming down.

Calls started coming into 911.

911 Caller:  “A big jet was going down into the Hudson and it pulled back up. And I'm telling you this plane was way too low.”

Christian Martin--a former Dateline producer-- was in his Manhattan office high above 50th Street when he looked toward the river.

Christian Martin: “I saw a plane landing in a very controlled fashion going pretty slow. Just laid down absolutely perfect like this dead in the middle. And it was so controlled that it took a moment to realize that this was an emergency crash landing.”

This animation is based on what Martin said he saw. The airbus making a controlled descent,

Martin: “It was amazing as the plane touched down, it just touched down. It sat up high on the water for a good long time.”

The Airbus came to rest and to the non-pilots--non-engineers among us-- miraculously stayed intact, floating, a medium-sized jet now a boat following the tide out as it moved south on the Hudson River. “Miraculous” was about to be a word used over and over.

Inside the plane's cabin, Brad Wentzell was struck by the stillness.

Wentzell: "Usually in moments like that, you would expect chaos. It got real quiet and nobody said a word.  There was a child crying behind us. That was about it."

Kolodjay: Everyone... it was kind of orderly man. After awhile, I just kept saying ‘relax, relax.’ Women and children first. And then it just started filling with water."

The plane was sinking lower, tail-first. The front and mid-plane exits were popped.

Vince Spiro: "Luckily the guy sitting in front of me was a pilot and understood airplanes so he turned to the exit and made sure they knew how to take down the door so the door went out, not in, so that helped. Orderly fashion on the way out."

With water creeping up the plane's single aisle, the bruised and shaken passengers filed out of the exits and stood on the plane's wings to await whatever was going to happen next. It looked to the amazed spectators on both sides of the river as though they were walking on water, the second miracle-echo of the day. The plane hadn't sunk and there were a great many survivors moving under their own power.

The air temperature was 20 degrees. The water about 40. To slip into the river would be to die within minutes.

Carl Bazarian from north Florida was edging out on the wing. By then a plane life-raft had been inflated. "It was three of us. When we went to the right side, our raft was overturned. Three of us formed... a line, we flipped the raft and we said "OK, women and children first."

Brad Wentzell was inside the cabin still trying to get to the exit.

Wentzell: Probably the most amazing moment of my life, honestly -- there was a lady and her child. She was trying to climb over the seats because everybody, it was like rats. I mean for the most part, everybody was well behaved and everybody was organized but she got blocked off and I grabbed her and her child and walked them to the exit."

As it turned out, the pilot had feathered the jet in at the point where the Hudson River is criss-crossed by commuter ferries.

Within minutes of impact, an armada of ferries was moving to the downed jet, the drama playing out on live television.

Captain Vince Lombardi of the "NY Waterway" fleet arrived within three minutes.

Capt. Vince Lombardi: "They were cheering when we pulled up. There was a lot of scared people. A woman was clutching her child in the raft...."

Passenger David Sanderson said from his hospital bed later that the mother and child were desperate. The raft was drifting away from the relative safety of the wing. Sanderson grabbed for it.

David Sanderson: "So I held her on my arm, I said I won't let you go and I held onto the arm till this tugboat or something came up and they said, I'll throw you a rope."

The drifting raft was attached to a rescue boat, then that boat bumped the fuselage.

David Sanderson: "That point's when I jumped. I said, 'I gotta get outta here."

The plane's wing slowly settled into the river, the water lapping survivors' ankles.

Joe Hart: "My legs went numb when I got into the water. I mean, that quick. It was that cold. It was frigid."

Capt. Lombardi: "We had to pull one elderly female out of the raft with a sling. She was injured and bleeding."

New York may be the most maligned city in the country. Out-of-towners sometimes put off by what they think of as its sharp elbows and brusque manners. Now the world was watching what a "New York Minute" really meant when the chips were down.

NYPD divers jumping into the artic water from choppers. NY Firefighters lifting survivors to safety on their inflatables. The Coast Guard above and on the water.

Ferry commuters tossing life vests. It was a symphony of what well-practiced fire and rescue is capable of when it meets the can-do human spirit New Yawk style. What might have been a catastrophe was turning into the city's biggest feel-good story in years. The survivors were coming ashore, mostly okay. A woman with two broken legs was the most seriously injured. Some people surprised to find themselves still alive.

Survivor: “If you're going to go down in an incident you want to be in New York, I promise you.  Those people took care of us. The ferry boat driver, fire and rescue took us out.”

And all the survivors had nothing but praise for the US Airways pilot, Chesley Sullenberger III, an Air Force academy grad and veteran commercial pilot. He's also a certified glider pilot which was how he brought in flight 1549.

Captain Sullenberger walked the flooded aisle of his plane twice to ensure there was no one left onboard. He was the last person off.

Passenger Billy Campbell found himself on a life raft with the pilot and co-pilot.

"And the co-pilot turned to the pilot in a wonderful moment and said, 'You know Sully, no one's ever done a successful ditch and you just pulled it off, pretty amazing… And the thing I'll always remember is I said, 'Well, so you're up there, we're coming into, you know it's inevitable, what did you think, and he kinda paused and he said, 'I have to tell you. I thought it would be a lot worse."

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg--himself a pilot--awarded Capt. Sullenberger the key to the city. He sounded as though he'd like to give him a ticker tape parade.

“It would appear that the pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then sure that everyone got out.”

Everyone including nine-and-a-half month-old Damian Sosa.

By evening's end, the plane had drifted four-miles south to lower Manhattan by Ground Zero. It was lashed to the seawall like an errant, dismasted sailboat.

Some of the passengers did make it to Charlotte late last night.

Brad Wentzell reflected on what oddly might turn out to be the best plane ride of his life. 

Wentzell: This pilot is the reason my daughter, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter has a dad. And when I get home I want to put my nose by her ear and her little warm body and give her a nice kiss from Daddy because I'm alive.