LDS Emergency Preparedness

Be Prepared, Not Scared!

Surviving any Disaster

Posted by Elise on October 6, 2010

On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a collision with a flock of Canadian geese knocked out his aircraft’s engines. In what would become celebrated as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” all 150 passengers and every crew member survived. 

Sullenberger’s water landing was only the beginning of this incredible story of survival. The less publicized rest of the story is how the passengers of Flight 1549 reacted to the disaster… and how they rebuilt and reshaped their lives in the months that followed. 
Dorothy Firman, EdD, a therapist and professor of psychology, interviewed passengers and rescuers to determine the lessons that Flight 1549 can teach us all… 


Once Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson, people on the plane were forced to make potentially life-and-death decisions and confront their mortality. Certain actions and attitudes can increase the odds of survival in these situations… 

  • A sense of preparedness. There’s no way to truly be prepared for an emergency as rare as a plane crash. Still, those who take steps to prepare, however small, and those who can call to mind relevant training or experience from their past tend to feel prepared, improving the odds that they will remain calm and react productively.

Example: Flight 1549 passenger Bill Zuhoski felt prepared for a winter water landing because he had enjoyed bracing winter swims as a boy. He remained calm and responded well even though he lost his glasses in the crash and couldn’t see the exits. 
 ACTION PLAN Take a basic safety or survival class. Count the rows to the nearest exit when you board a plane, and read the safety instruction card even if you fly often. 

  • Continually assess and reassess your options. Devise a survival plan as soon as disaster looms, but do not become so wedded to this plan that you fail to reevaluate your strategy as new information becomes available. When people are under great stress, they become prone to one-track thinking, which can be fatal in rapidly changing emergency situations.   Using an ongoing reassessment thought process also keeps our minds in take-charge action mode, not the deer-in-the headlights victim mode that causes some people to shut down completely in disasters. And it sidesteps the common trap of feeling hopeless when an initial plan fails. 

 Example: As Flight 1549 glided toward the river, passenger Mark Hood, a former marine lieutenant, asked himself, “Where are all the exits? Who around me might need help?” Even after he exited the plane, Hood didn’t stop thinking through his options. He evaluated the seats available on a life raft and selected one at the rear, where he could keep an eye on his fellow raft passengers and help them stay safe. 
 ACTION PLAN Continually reevaluate your initial plan. Have alternatives in mind. Focus on the action-oriented question, “What can I do?” in emergencies, rather than the victim-oriented question, “Why did this happen to me?” 

  • Reflect on your highest priorities to prod your will to survive. In an emergency, take a moment to think about how much your loved ones need you — or the life goals that you have not yet accomplished. This can reduce the odds that you will freeze up or give up.

Example: In the moments before the crash landing, passenger Brad Wentzell had thoughts about his daughter. The memory made him calm, yet focused. 
ACTION PLAN Focus on the important people and goals in your life. 

  • Help others (and help yourself in the process). Striving to assist others in an emergency can prevent you from feeling like a helpless victim yourself, increasing your own odds of survival.

 Examples: Passenger Barry Leonard suffered a cracked sternum in the Flight 1549 crash and was near death from hypothermia after attempting to swim from the plane. He still used his remaining strength to help others climb onto a ferry before exiting the life raft himself. Wentzell saw that some other passengers were in a daze after the crash and made it his task to get them moving, yelling, “Get up! Come on. Go!” He even grabbed one man’s shirt to shake him from his stupor. 
 ACTION PLAN Identify someone who is struggling in an emergency, and make it your mission to help him/her. 

  • Postpone the “Phew, I’ve made it” moment. It’s dangerous to celebrate too soon in a disaster. Flight 1549 passengers felt fortunate to have survived the initial crash, but they still had the difficult job of exiting the plane. Once out, they had to survive frigid, dangerous conditions on a wing, in a life raft or in frigid water. Those who allowed themselves to feel safe before they were aboard a rescue craft risked losing their adrenaline rush and making mistakes.

 Example: Passenger Dave Sanderson found himself in great danger after help arrived, when a rescue boat bumped the plane and he was forced into near-freezing water while others already were boarding the rescue boat. 
ACTION PLAN When you think that you have escaped an emergency, ask, “What do I need to do now to further increase my level of safety… and do others still need my help?” 


The passengers who spoke with us felt that their lives had been altered by the event. To come to terms with these feelings and move forward… 

  • Find someone you can talk to. Many people think that they must keep their feelings inside. If you have survived a disaster, you almost certainly have feelings that need to be expressed.

Example: The mother of passenger Michele Davis told us that her daughter initially lost her bubbly personality after the crash. Talking through the experience with us for the book was what finally convinced Davis that it was okay to allow herself to cry. 
ACTION PLAN Find someone, such as a therapist or clergy member, who will listen to you without judgment and without offering quick fixes. 

  • Transform your life by moving closer to what you already wanted to be. Many disaster survivors feel driven to abandon their old lives in an effort to seek lives that are more fulfilling or that seem to have more meaning. Such extreme change usually is not necessary. Instead, reflect on your personal priorities and on how you could integrate these more into your current life.

Example: Flight 1549 passenger Matt Kane now steps in when he sees flight attendants being treated poorly by rude passengers. In the past, he would have just “minded his own business.” 
ACTION PLAN Focus on what’s important to you. Often this means spending more time with loved ones… or making an effort to help those in need. 

  • Create a new community. Many of the survivors of Flight 1549 have become close — disaster survivors often feel a strong bond with fellow survivors. These are the only people who can provide complete understanding.

Example: In the year following the crash, passengers Darren Beck and Don Norton — who work together but had not been close — became good friends. Beck says he now discusses things with Norton that he would never talk about with anyone else. 
ACTION PLAN For emotional support, seek out others who have survived traumas similar to yours. A therapist or clergy member might be able to help you find an appropriate group. Also, work on deepening the relationships with those already in your life — friends, family and colleagues. 

Source: Dorothy Firman, EdD, professor in the department of graduate psychology and counseling at Union Institute and University, Brattleboro, Vermont, and psychotherapist at the Synthesis Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. She has more than 30 years of experience in psychology and counseling. Dr. Firman and her coauthor, Kevin Quirk, interviewed 25 of the Flight 1549 survivors and rescuers for their book Brace for Impact: Miracle on the Hudson Survivors Share Their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life

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