IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Crash survivors face life after near-death

When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the icy Hudson River, Mike Berkwits was too busy getting his wife off the slowly sinking plane and out of the swift-moving water to worry about dying.
Image: Mike Berkwits, Mary Berkwits
Mike Berkwits and his wife, Mary, in their home in Stallings, N.C., on Friday. Berkwits is just starting to wrestle with his memories of surviving the plane crash. Others are celebrating their good fortune, thrilled by a near-death experience that's brought them closer to loved ones.Chuck Burton / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the icy Hudson River, Mike Berkwits was too busy getting his wife off the slowly sinking plane and out of the swift-moving water to worry about dying.

Now that's he's had a week to remember it, every time he tries to fall asleep, he can't think about much else.

He sees passengers crying and praying as the jetliner bound for North Carolina hit the river. The desperate scramble to escape as water filled the aisle. The look on his wife's face as they huddled cold on a wing, wondering if the ferries in the distance would arrive in time to save them.

"I haven't slept much. I keep thinking about it, replaying it in my head," said Berkwits, a 55-year-old business owner from Charlotte. "At the time, I was just focused on what I had to do to survive. I didn't think about dying. It just didn't register.

"But now, it's different. I think about it a lot."

'Miracle on the Hudson'
The United States hasn't had a major fatal plane crash in more than two years, but the idea that all aboard the plane that landed in a river survived still seems absurd. Many of Flight 1549's 155 passengers and crew were still in wet clothes when New York Gov. David Paterson dubbed the landing the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Survivors who went home after the sensational landing are now coping with a dual reality: They are celebrating the simple grace that they are alive, but also chilled by recurring memories of coming so close to death.

Vallie Collins, 37, of Maryville, Tenn., took her husband and two kids along to Los Angeles to join a group of survivors on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." While in L.A., she stopped a tourist at Universal Studios and asked him to take a family picture.

"When he took the picture, it just washed over me: It's amazing I'm here to be in this picture," Collins said. "It's those kinds of emotions that sometimes catch you. In the still moments, I guess, is when it kind of hits me a little bit."

Talking about the experience — be it on TV or at home among family and friends — will help the survivors confront "something that was totally out of the normal," said Carolyn Coarsey, a psychologist who has studied aircraft accidents and is the co-founder of the Atlanta-based Family Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people following tragedy.

Sleepless nights amid endlessly looping memories of the crash are typical, she said, and some survivors will need professional counseling. But most will be fine as the memories fade with time.

"It's very unusual for someone to go through something like this and survive and not have some of these reactions," Coarsey said. "But it doesn't at all mean that anybody's sick. ... It's simply the brain's way of trying to cope."

'Ripped away half of me'
It's not just the passengers facing such feelings. Michael Mills learned his wife Beverly's plane had crashed while watching television at home, and for a frantic half-hour, he didn't know if his wife of 37 years was dead or alive. "I had this feeling like somebody had ripped away half of me," he said.

When she called from a rescue boat — using a borrowed cell phone dialed by someone else, her fingers too cold to strike the keys — the celebration was on.

Image: Beverly Mills, Michael Mills
Beverly Mills, front, and her husband Michael, back, are shown at their home in Sherrills Ford, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009. Michael Mills greeted his wife at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., the day after she survived US Airways Flight 1549 splash down in the icy Hudson River with red roses. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)Chuck Burton / AP

Mills greeted his wife at the airport in Charlotte the next day with red roses. At home, a chilled bottle of champagne and other goodies were waiting. The couple didn't leave their house for two days, watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica and other science-fiction shows as the talked about what had happened in New York.

"I think we're more aware of each other," Mills said. "For the first couple of days, I didn't want her out of my sight. Normally we're home a lot of the time together ... She works from home when she's not traveling on business. So now I take it less for granted. When I walk in the door I make sure I know where she is."

The same feeling is there for Collins. She's found herself treasuring moments that before the crash were nothing but trials, like temper tantrums thrown by her 4-year-old son. She's also cautious not to show any fears to her children of what she still considers to be the safest way to travel.

"I want them to feel like life is going back to normal. I was never this sappy, emotionally needy, overprotective (mother), and I don't want to turn into that," Collins said. "I don't want them to feel like they have a whole different mommy than the mommy they had before I flew to New York."

Touched by kindness
Some have even made changes to their lives in the weeks after the crash. Touched by the kindness of a young woman who insisted on giving up her dry socks and coat, Beth McHugh, 64, has promised herself not to keep strangers she meets at a distance.

Starting right then and there, everyone she meets — be it the TSA agent who patted her down for her first flight after the crash to the deliveryman who brought flowers to the door of her Lake Wylie, S.C., home — is getting a hug.

"It connects you to people," she said. "It's all about celebrating life. ... It's all about celebrating that people in our lives are the only important things in our lives."

So far, no one has turned her down.