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Hudson River crash: Three tales of fear and salvation

NEW YORK — Mike Barnhardt of Huntersville, N.C., was in a business meeting and figured his wife was just calling to say her flight was late.

When he picked up Vicki's voicemail message 15 minutes later, he heard this, "We're crashing. This is it. I just want to tell you I love you, I love the kids, I love you, I love you, I love you."

His reaction, he said, "was nothing you would want anyone else to hear."

"That's it, I'm a single parent," he thought. "Half your life is gone in one fell swoop. It's not something you wish on your worst enemy."

He frantically tried to get information on his Blackberry and told his boss that Vicki's plane crashed. He headed to pick up his 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

About 30 minutes later, he got another call from a number he didn't recognize. This time she was on a rescue ferry and telling him she was OK. He felt "utmost relief."

Barnhardt talked to reporters Friday at the hotel where many of the crash victims were brought after they were rescued. He flew in from Charlotte on Thursday night after the crash, and the couple planned to fly home again Friday.

Barnhardt said Vicki, 38, an independent contractor who does trainings for clients such as Bank of America and Wachovia, was visiting a new customer in New York. She had been seated in the rear of the plane when it went down, and was one of the last people off the flight.

When she stepped out onto the wing of the plane, she slipped off and was submerged in the freezing Hudson River. But she got plucked out and was fine.

Still chilled, tired and sore, Barnhardt said she wasn't ready to face the press.

"Obviously you still reflect on it and you get emotional about it. You start to grasp what happened," he said of how the pair were feeling Friday.

He credits a "higher hand" and the skilled pilot.

Her terrifying voicemail is gone.

"Just as an instinct, I erased it," he said. "It's not something you want to hear again. It's just nauseating to hear something like that, I'm glad I erased it."

*******

For Raymond Mandrell, real fear kicked in when he climbed up on the wing of the airplane after being submerged in the freezing cold Hudson River. He realized he couldn't feel his hands.

"I didn't know if I was going to lose my limbs," the Miami video producer said.

But once he was on a rescue boat, he realized there was one person still in the water. Heavyset, the woman was having trouble getting up.

"I can't use my hands or my feet," he said. "She said, 'I can't do it.' So I locked her arm with my arm and with the other guys up there, we pulled her to safety."

Mandrell's business partner and sometime girlfriend, publicist Reenee Williams of Tallahassee, feels it was meant to be, that he went out one wing and she went out the other.

"Even though it crashed and we got separated and it was nervous, it was OK, because if he didn't go out the other side, that lady probably would have drowned," she said in an interview in their hotel room.

Their clothes were still drying in the bathroom and Mandrell's money and identification cards were still drying out on the desk.

The pair had spent a couple days in New York visiting with record labels including Atlantic and Bad Boy Records for her employer, Studio 360.

Mandrell, 30, said he's not much of a flyer, but enjoyed his first glimpse of New York – Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway system -- so much he was already thinking about returning.

Inside the plane, which was supposed to take him to Charlotte before he headed to Florida, Mandrell said he heard a boom.

And then he heard the kind of quiet that could only mean the engines weren't working. Out the window, he saw the airplane "descending, descending, descending."

Mandrell, toward the rear of the plane in 24F, said a silent prayer and held hands with Williams, and she held hands with the woman on her other side.

"I said, 'Lord, please, thank you for the life you gave me and I really appreciate this life I lived. Please protect everyone on this plane, and get us through this," Mandrell said.

Williams prayed too. And she remembers saying, "We've got angels around us and we are going to be safe," she said. "Calmness came over. I didn't feel like I was going to die. I said, 'We need to get the 'f' out of the plane, if we don't we're going to have a problem."

Mandrell credits Williams with directing folks to bring their seat cushions, the flotation devices, with them.

She was wearing tall, high-heeled boots and the plane was already filling up with water. "I'm walking from (row) 24 to one, climbing over seats saying 'I'm not going to die on this plane,'" she said.

She got out first and went out one side of the plane, and he emerged later on the other side. He said the men helped women, children and the elderly get to safety first.

Mandrell lights up when the conversation turns to the pilot, whom he calls by his nickname, Sully.

"I want to meet him, man," he said. "He was calm and I'm glad he didn't say anything. If he had said anything at the time there would have been much more panic. He kept it calm until there was no choice but to tell everyone it was time to brace for impact."

Williams said she suffered minor hypothermia, which felt "like sharp needles in my feet," but the only thing she cared about was finding out if Mandrell was OK. He'd been taken to a different hospital.

Their relationship is a bit complicated, they say, but they use the word love to describe their feelings for one another.

"He's my heart, I'm his heart," she said. "Love is love. We don't have a title."

********

Andrew Gray of Fayetteville, N.C., faced life-threatening situations during his two tours, 27 months, in Afghanistan.

But going down in a plane crash wasn't at all the same.

"Over there, you've got armor, you've got a weapon to defend yourself and you're surrounded by peers to your left and your right who are also trained," he said of his service in the war. "On the plane, I felt helpless. I couldn't help the pilot, I couldn't help anyone. All you could do is tighten your seat belt and hold on and pray and hope. You're just wearing clothes and flying into water.

"It's a different kind of fear, a kind of helplessness."

Gray, 28, was an Army captain in the 173rd Airborne based in Italy until last month. He's jumped out of aircraft 14 times as part of his job.

"It's hard to believe I've been pushing my luck jumping out of planes but I come all the way back here out of the Army and crash-landed," he said of Charlotte-bound US Airways Flight 1549's crash after takeoff into the Hudson River.

Gray was in New York with his fiancé, Stephanie King, an attorney from Milwaukee. They were celebrating her 29th birthday in true New York style, a show, an expensive restaurant, music and pubs. They were headed back to Fayetteville together to visit his parents.

They were sitting a couple rows behind the middle exit. He was reading The Economist. He heard a loud popping sound like a firecracker. He looked up and saw a flash. Then a putrid smell, like burning sulphur.

The pilot banked left, and Gray assumed they were headed back to the airport. Until the sound, a sound he didn't hear.

"Everybody who has flown on a plane knows that hum, like the engines were going. It's always loud," he says. "After we turned and banked around – silence. Just like we were gliding, literally."

He sensed everyone was in shock. In his window seat, he could tell they were too low to make it back to the airport. He started imagining himself trying to swim up from underneath the water they were headed for, freezing cold, and didn't think he could do it.

"I looked at Stephanie and she was crying, and I took her by the hand and kissed her," he pauses, choked up, tears reddening his eyes. "I told her I loved her and I started praying."

They braced for the crash and as soon as they hit he told King to unbuckle her seat belt. They were among the first to climb out on the wing.

"People were coming out behind us. We had to keep inching down the wing," he said. "There's a current. The slick metal under water. We were holding on to each other inching down the wing. We were just trying to make room for people behind us."

His fear subsided at that point, with both New York and New Jersey in full view and boats soon to arrive. He and King called family immediately after getting on a rescue ferry to let them know they were OK.

Now he's joking about inviting the pilot to his wedding.

"His flying skills were certainly heroic," Gray said in an interview in their New York hotel room while King prepared for their train trip home. "Praise God as well for placing him there to actually fly the plane that day. Everybody is calling it a miracle, which it is, but you have to remember who the miracle worker really is. All 155 people walked away virtually unscathed."

He contemplates why it happened.

"There are passengers who are going to see this as a second chance in life," he says. "They may have had their own issues in life. It affected all of us. When the pilot said 'brace for impact,' I was thinking oh my gosh, is this really happening? It's going to end like this? Already? There's so much you want to do. It makes you appreciate your life.

As for her King's birthday, he thinks she got the ultimate present.

"She got the gift of life," he said.

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