NEW YORK – The spot where a crippled jet slowly sank a year ago in the frigid Hudson River amid panic, heroism, terror and euphoria transformed Friday into a site of celebration as the crew and passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 joined with their rescuers to raise a glass to toast their unlikely survival.
They raised their glasses at 3:31 p.m., the moment of impact, on one of the ferries that plucked them from the water. They made the toast at the approximate spot where the plane went down after a half-day of gatherings to mark the miraculous splash landing, which all aboard survived.
At least some of the passengers had planned to make the toast with Grey Goose vodka — apparently a wry nod to the flock of geese that disabled the engine of the Airbus A320 on Jan. 15, 2009. A passenger arranged for the vodka company to provide some bottles, said Pat Smith, a spokesman for NY Waterway, the employer of ferry crews that rescued many of the 155 people aboard.
About 100 people applauded earlier in the morning as Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger — an unknown pilot when he deftly brought the North Carolina-bound plane down — arrived for a breakfast as a national celebrity, smiling and wearing his pilot's uniform.
"We're so happy to have so much to celebrate," he said. "We have so much to be grateful for," he said.
A few hours later, passengers, crew and rescuers gathered at a ferry terminal on Manhattan's West Side to embark on the river jaunt. Just like it was a year ago, the weather was cold, and some people were worried about going into the river.
"A little nervous," said flight attendant Doreen Welsh, who developed a fear of water after she was submerged up to her chin in the flooded aircraft. She said she began crying when another flight attendant pointed out the spot in the terminal where she had lain on a gurney after being rescued.
"It brought it all back," she said.
Forty-eight of the passengers on Flight 1549 participated in the day's events, including Laura Zych and Ben Bostic of Charlotte, N.C., who started dating after the splashdown's six-month anniversary.
Life, said Bostic, is "a lot better. I'm more open to opportunities. I appreciate everything."
Chimed in Zych: "We don't take anything for granted. We celebrated the one-month anniversary, two, three, four. We've been waiting for this day."
Bostic said he still feels "a little anxiety" about flying. But having Zych with him, he said, makes it easier.
Sullenberger said that, to date, he has met two-thirds of the passengers and hoped to meet all of them eventually. At the ferry terminal, he was mobbed by well-wishers, including a tearful Hannah Acton, whose husband, Patrick, was on the flight.
"Thank you so much," she said, clutching a copy of Sullenberger's book to her chest.
Later, she recalled the dread she felt after getting a call that her husband's plane had gone down, then not knowing for 23 minutes whether he was dead or alive as she watched the rescue on television.
"I was hysterical," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, now I'm watching my husband die."'
Theresa Bischoff, CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater New York, introduced Gov. David Paterson at the gathering, crediting him with coining the phrase "Miracle on the Hudson."
"It was the happiest day I have spent or ever will spend as governor," Paterson said.
Sullenberger's co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, called all the rescuers, from the fire and police departments to ferry and boat operators, "the true heroes of that day."
Skiles then made a $5,000 donation to the American Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. He made the check in the name of the victims of the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y. last February.
Bank of America, which had 20 employees on the flight, presented the Red Cross with a $21,549 donation for Haiti relief.
The return to the water has brought up mixed feelings for some of the survivors. But many are eager to reunite with the others who shared in the harrowing experience. Some say they consider the group to be a kind of family.
"It does bring back memories of being out there and what we went through," Bostic said previously. "But with those memories, it also reinforces that gratitude we have."
Whether it's traveling together or just spending quiet time with each other, Bostic says he's intent on making sure he doesn't miss out on anything. After all, there could be another encounter with death at any time.
"If it happens," he said, "it's going to happen this time without any regrets."