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It’s a sure bet Maryville University alumna Elizabeth McHugh, ’66, a member of the Golden Circle class honored during this fall’s Alumni Weekend, had one of the most interesting – and frightful – stories to share with classmates. She was a passenger on the legendary US Airways Flight 1549 when it made an emergency landing in the Hudson River.
The incident was chronicled in the books Miracle on the Hudson and Brace for Impact, and in the film Sully.
At the time, McHugh was commuting regularly between North Carolina and New York for work, which placed her on that fateful flight. She vividly remembers the moments before the collision.
“Suddenly, we could feel the plane was no longer in an upward motion at all. On the left we could see skyscrapers getting taller and taller and we were going lower and lower.”
“We were at about 2,800 feet and there was a loud explosion,” McHugh says. “The plane shook and then settled a little. Most of us first thought, ‘Well maybe one of the engines is gone, but we can fly back to LaGuardia with one engine.’ After about three seconds, we realized there was no sound whatsoever,” she remembers.
Then, the plane began to descend quickly.
“Suddenly, we could feel the plane was no longer in an upward motion at all. On the left we could see skyscrapers getting taller and taller and we were going lower and lower,” she says.
McHugh believed she was going to die. “We were so close to the skyscrapers and the highway that runs along the Hudson River on that side, and that’s where I thought we would be.”
The plane veered to the left to avoid hitting the Washington Bridge, then crashed into the river a short time later.
“I am still alive. I am grateful for every minute of every day, for everything I have right now.”
McHugh was seated near the back. The exit behind her was blocked and water gushed in from a hole torn in the floor, but she and other passengers made it to the wings. She jumped five feet down into a raft filled with freezing water. Besides being cold, McHugh escaped the ordeal physically unscathed. However, the emotional and psychological impact has been profound; her sense of gratitude has grown immensely. She feels she saw the best of humanity that day, in the crew, the other passengers, and all of the rescuers and responders.
“I am still alive. I am grateful for every minute of every day, for everything I have right now,” McHugh says. The following year, she reprioritized her life and retired from her longtime project management position.
She remembers thinking, “I could go on working 14 hours a day, or I can retire a year early and have time to live this life I’ve been given as a major gift.”
McHugh lives in South Carolina and now devotes her time to visiting family, especially her seven grandchildren. She often volunteers at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, where the “Sully” plane — so named for the aircraft’s pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — is on exhibit. She educates school groups about aviation safety and does other speaking engagements about the crash. In addition, she volunteers in a school health room where her sister works as a school nurse.
McHugh has seen the movie Sully and says it’s mostly accurate. “It was an intense, emotional experience to watch it,” she says.
Surviving the crash of Flight 1549 was a transformative moment in McHugh’s life. She says, “I’d like to think it turned me into a saint, but no – I’m still very human.”
This story also featured in the Fall 2016 edition of Maryville Magazine.