You're flying on a plane when you see the engine explode and catch on fire. How would you react?
For episode 100 of the LEADx Leadership Show, we had on Captain Sully Sullenberger the pilot of US Airways flight 1549 that suffered a bird strike, taking out both engines right after they took off. Captain Sully successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River in what came to known as the Miracle on the Hudson…
Dave Sanderson was a passenger on that flight. He was an ordinary person put into an extraordinary situation and because he chose to help everyone else first, he was the last passenger to leave that plane. He wrote about his story in his book, Moments Matter.
I recently interviewed Dave for the LEADx Podcast where he took us through that fateful day and what he learned from the back of flight US Airways Flight 1549. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Will you tell us a story about a time when you failed? Maybe early in your career, maybe later and what you learned from it?
Dave Sanderson: Unfortunately I've had it a few times in my life, everybody's got those times. I'll go back to college because my freshman year of college and this is a little-known story which I have not told in many, many years but I was actually trying out for a TV show called Dance Fever.
Late 1970s and I thought that would be my claim to fame and I got to the semi-final round to be on TV and I failed and I thought I was such a big failure because I thought I was good enough but then you realize later on that there's a lot of good people out there and you really have to stand out if you want to be something like that. That was a time I failed. I learned a really nice lesson about myself that if I'm going to be outstanding, you gotta put that little extra into, that 1% more to get that effort in.
When you want to go on TV, everybody's good at that level. You think you're great, you're just good. That's a great lesson.
Kruse: Take us back to that day. You say you heard the noise when the birds went into the engines but you didn't realize you were going down at that point?
Sanderson: I heard the explosion, I was in seat 15A which was four rows behind the left wing. So I looked out the window and saw fire coming out from underneath the left wing. I knew something was happening but since I fly so often I know that planes have multiple engines. This one had two engines. So I thought, that means going back to LaGuardia. It wasn't until he crossed over the bridge. He only cleared the bridge roughly around 400 feet because he was roughly 1,000 feet at that point. You could look out the window and see people's faces looking up and that's how close you were to the bridge. That's when I realized something serious was going on.
Kruse: At what point did you have that feeling that “This is it”?
Sanderson: I initially thought “This is it.” Because the only thing I can remember from plane crashes is those films they ran that night about planes going down and tipping on the edges and rolling through the water and crashing. All I could think about is, “Man, this thing goes down, I don't have a shot. No one has been able to do this. I don't have a shot.”
Kruse: What did you do in that half-a-minute when you thought you were going to die?
Sanderson: Once he said “Brace for impact,” is when I prayed. And I prayed for three things. One, that whoever that captain was, he gets me down in one piece. I don't know who he was at that point, but just get me down. Second was I hope my client, who was in Brooklyn, will call my wife and tell her I loved her. And the third thing I prayed to God to forgive my sins. I didn't think I was coming back. But then I put my head down because I didn't know how to brace. Who reads the instructions, right? You brace like you think you're going to need to brace but when I put my head down, and I saw my whole life pass before my eyes.
I saw very clearly things from my life I hadn't seen for many years. I talked to a lady who was in my church who survived the earthquake the following year in Haiti, and she and I were comparing notes because she was in that same situation. She said, she had the same clear thing. She saw her whole life pass before her eyes with clarity and all sudden you knew what your mission on earth was. All of a sudden clarity came to your life. This is why I'm here. And that's what happened to me.
Kruse: What was going on around you?
Sanderson: It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was into themselves. There were some people who were texting. We know that. I know a lot of people were doing that. People who were around me were reconciled with, “This is probably it.”
Kruse: You land, and there must have been a surprise like, “Wow, I'm not dead!” And then what? “I gotta get off this plane”?
Sanderson: As soon as we hit, I looked up, I saw white coming through the window but the water was already over the window at that point. I knew I was alive but my game plan wasn't right, it was get to the aisle, get up and get out. But when I got to the aisle, something happened that changed everything for me, I heard my mother who had passed away in 1997 talk to me in my head and say, “If you do the right thing, God will take care of you.” I grew up in sports, athletics, and Boy Scouts, which were always around groups of teens or people. You take care of the team. So I went towards the back of the plane to see if anybody needed help because I knew I was alive. I didn't know if anybody back there was.
Things were moving fast you didn't know what was going on so I went to the back of the plane to see if anybody needed help and there was one elderly lady that was having a challenge and two ladies, I give them 100% of the credit, got her up and got her moving so I got behind them and starting making my way out of the plane and by that time the water is about waist deep.
Luggage is flown out from the impact so things were floating in the water so you're trying to get out but the further I could go up was seat 10F on the right. When I got to the door I looked down to get out on the wing like everybody else but there was no room on the wing or the boat for me. That's why I was inside the plane for about seven minutes waist deep in 36-degree water, holding onto the lifeboat.
I didn't know I was the last passenger out until I saw a picture when I was on Good Morning America with Captain Sullenberger and some other people, the first picture they showed was me hanging out of the plane holding onto to this lifeboat.
Kruse: As you're trying to check on people in the back of the plane, there's still people flooding the aisles trying to get out, right?
Sanderson: Right. I was squeezing in between. One of the things I tell people that a lot of people don't know but on impact, some of those seats had actually broken. One of the things I noticed is all of sudden people were jumping up on top of the seats, walking down the seats to get out the doors. Sometimes you think you have one pathway to get something accomplished, and all of a sudden multiple pathways open up. That's what happened.
Kruse: At what point did you say, “I've checked on everybody, I've done all I can do.”
Sanderson: That was about six, seven minutes later. And then what happened was the plane shook. I found out after that one of the tugboat captains accidentally hit the front of the plane as he was backing his boat out which shook the plane. When I felt that go on, I felt water going up my back and the first thing I thought about was Titanic. Man, this thing's going down. Don't be sucked down in a plane. Two things can happen; you can have a fire or you can be sucked down in a plane. So I jumped in and swam to the closest boat that I could find.
Kruse: Are you a strong swimmer?
Sanderson: I'm a very good swimmer. One of the things I tell people is that I really appreciate my mom and dad giving me swimming lessons when I was a child now, but when I took the Red Cross swimming lessons, one of the things they make you do is swim with your clothes on. That day, I had my clothes on, was swimming in this 36-degree water that also had jet fuel floating in it because of the impact. So now you're trying to swim through this water with clothes on, and I thank mom and dad every day for giving us swimming lessons.
Kruse: How long were you hanging onto the boat? Once you got off the plane, how long before you really felt safe?
Sanderson: They got me on the ferry, and that's when it really starting hitting me, because by that time the adrenaline had gone and I had been in the water for seven or eight minutes now and I was so cold I could barely breathe. That's the moment I first thought, “I'm not going to make it.” I might have survived the plane crash but I might die of being cold. It wasn't really until I got to the triage center and they told me I could have a heart attack or stroke, but at that point I still didn't feel real comfortable until I got to the hospital and they finally started warming me up, which took five hours to warm up because I had hypothermia, my body temperature was about 94 degrees.
It took them five hours to do it slowly so my organs weren't affected. Basically, I was told everything south of my heart was frozen, my stomach, my kidneys. Until I could go to the bathroom, my kidneys started working, that's when they would know that my body was ready to go and it took them five hours for me to be up and go to the bathroom.
Kruse: You ended up switching careers shortly after this flight?
Sanderson: It took a few years because I still had to get my kids through college. It was about four and a half years and my wife, finally what happened was, CBS did a feature story on me on the evening news on the fifth year anniversary of the plane crash and they followed me from Charlotte to New York to New Jersey for about three days and once that aired my wife saw it, I was actually in New York doing some media around that and she said, “Maybe it's time for you go out and do your own thing.”
That was like a blessing to my ears, Kevin. I was like man, she's giving me the go ahead, I'm going and that, I went out started speaking because I knew I could impact more people by doing what I'm doing now than working for a company that I didn't know whether it valued me or not. I made them a lot of money but like you said, the next day you're back at zero so what are you going to do for me lately? Where now I can impact people's lives and that's what really changed, and my wife gave me permission to do it.
Kruse: What would you say is something that you would ask us to try or to reflect on given your experience?
Sanderson: I appreciate that question because based on that I tell people to work at something every day around your sensory acuity. People ask, “what's that?” It's having you communicate in the modality of the person you're with.
What I mean is there are audio, visual and kinesthetic ways to communicate. That day with all stuff breaking loose, I had to communicate in a lot of different ways and having the skillset by being the head of director of security for Tony Robbins for about 10 years, traveling with him and being around him, learning how to communicate in different modalities was something I picked up. I say I would challenge everybody that's listening to say, understand whether it's your spouse or significant other, understand how do they communicate. Whether they're auditory, they want to talk a lot, or visual, short conversations, kinesthetic, they're more touchy-feely and and try to communicate and learn modality and see how much rapport you get.
That's what I used in sales and it's something my company never understood. How I was getting into the C suites so quickly? It was because I could communicate in the modality of the people I was working with and all of a sudden you build instant rapport and you're now side by side instead of confrontational.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.