from a Partner at Heidrick & Struggles
New York City
The Grace Building
1114 Avenue of the Americas
New York , NY 10036
+1 212 8679876
Fax: +1 212 3709035
As many of you now know, Gerry McNamara (New York/Charlotte) was on
USAirways Flight 1549 last week. We caught up with him to discuss the
harrowing incident and - in a departure from our usual format -present
his stirring account as told to us:
Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm and I left the
Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia
I was scheduled for a 5pm departure, but able to secure a seat on the
earlier flight scheduled to leave at 3PM. As many of us who fly
frequently often do, I recall wondering if I'd just placed myself on a
flight I shouldn't be on!
Just prior to boarding I finished up a conference call with my
associate, Jenn Sparks ( New York ), and our placement, the CIO of
United Airlines. When I told him that I was about to board a US Airways
flight, we all had a little fun with it.
I remember walking on the plane and seeing a fellow with grey hair in
the cockpit and thinking "that's a good thing... I like to see grey h
air in the cockpit!"
I was seated in 8F, on the starboard side window and next to a young
business man. The New York to Charlotte flight is one I've taken what
seems like hundreds of times over the years. We take off north over the
Bronx and as we climb, turn west over the Hudson River to New Jersey and
tack south. I love to fly, always have, and this flight
plan gives a great view of several NY landmarks including Yankee Stadium
and the George Washington Bridge .
I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next to me
when we heard a terrible crash - a sound no one ever wants to hear while
flying - and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt. 10
seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel. I knew we would be
landing and thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to
Newark Airport . As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining up
on the river still - I thought - en route for Newark .
Next thing we heard was " Brace for impact!" - a phrase I had heard many
years before as an active duty Marine Officer but never before on a
commercial air flight. Click for more...
Everyone looked at each other in shock. It all happened so fast we were
We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in. This is the last
flight. I'm going to die today. This is it. I recited my favorite bible
verse, the Lord's Prayer, and asked God to take care of my wife,
children, family and friends.
When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and
family....getting off a last message. My blackberry was turned off and
in my trouser pocket...no time to get at it. Our descent continued and I
prayed for courage to control my fear and help if able.
I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen, neither
of them good. We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few
if any survivors, bodies, cold water, fuel. Or we could hit one of the
wings an d roll and flip with the same result. I tightened my seat belt
as tight as I could possibly get it so I would remain intact.
As we came in for the landing, I looked out the windows and remember
seeing the buildings in New Jersey , the cliffs in Weehawken , and then
the piers. The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold. The
stewardesses were yelling in unison "Brace! Brace! Brace!"
It was a violent hit - the water flew up over my window - but we bobbed
up and were all amazed that we remained intact.
There was some panic - people jumping over seats and running towards the
doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down.
There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways.
Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job...they were
opened in a New York second! Everyone worked together - teamed up and in
groups to figure out how to help each other.
I exited on the starboard side of the plane, 3 or 4 rows behind my seat
through a door over the wing and was, I believe, the 10th or 12th person
out. I took my seat cushion as a flotation device and once outside saw I
was the only one who did....none of us remembered to take the yellow
inflatable life vests from under the seat.
We were standing in 6-8 inches of water and it was freezing. There were
two women on the wing, one of whom slipped off into the water.
Another passenger and I pulled her back on and had her kneel down to
keep from falling off again. By that point we were totally soaked and
absolutely frozen from the icy wind.
The ferries were the first to arrive, and although they're not made for
rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this river, having swum in it
as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary - part salt and part freshwater - and
moves with the tide. I could tell the tide was moving out because we
were tacking slowly south towards Ellis Island , The Statue
of Liberty , and The Batter y .
The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing, and the
first mate lowered the Jacobs ladder down to us. We got a couple people
up the ladder to safety, but the current was strong pushing the stern of
the boat into the inflatable slide and we were afraid it would puncture
it...there must have been 25 passengers in it by now.
Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved
Another ferry came up, and we were able to get the woman that had fallen
into the water on the ladder, but she just couldn't move her legs and
fell off. Back onto the ladder she went; however, the ferry had to back
away because of the swift current. A helicopter arrived on station
(nearly blowing us all off the wing) and followed the ferry with the
woman on the ladder. We lost view of the situation but I
believe the helicopter lowered its basket to rescue her.
As more ferries arrived, we were able to get people up on the boats a
few at a ti me. The fellow in front of me fell off the ladder and into
the water. When we got him back on the ladder he could not move his legs
to climb. I couldn't help him from my position so I climbed up the
ladder to the ferry deck where the first mate and I hoisted the Jacobs
ladder with him on it...when he got close enough we grabbed his
trouser belt and hauled him on deck. We were all safely off the wing.
We could not stop shaking. Uncontrollable shaking. The only thing I had
with me was my blackberry, which had gotten wet and was not working. (It
started working again a few hours later).
The ferry took us to the Weehawken Terminal in NJ where I borrowed a
phone and called my wife to let her know I was okay. The second call I
made was to Jenn. I knew she would be worried about me and could
communicate to the rest of the firm that I was fine. At the terminal,
first responders assessed everyone's condition and sent people to the
hospital as needed. As we pulled out o f Weehawken my history kicked in
and I recall it was the site of the famous duel between Alexander
Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Thankfully I left town in better
condition than Mr. Hamilton who died of a mortal wound the next day! I
stayed with my sister on Long Island that evening, then flew home the
I am struck by what was truly a miracle. Had this happened a few hours
later, it would have been pitch dark and much harder to land. Ferries
would no longer have been running after rush hour and it would not have
been the same uplifting story. Surely there would have been
fatalities, hypothermia, an absolute disaster!
I witnessed the best of humanity that day. I and everyone on that plane
survived and have been given a second chance. It struck me that in our
work we continuously seek excellence to solve our client's leadership
problems. We talk to clients all the time about the importance of
experience and the ability to execute.
Experience showed up big time on Flight 1549 as our pilot was a
dedicated, trained, experienced professional who executed flawlessly
when he had to.
I have received scores of emails from across the firm and I am so
grateful for the outpouring of interest and concern. We all fly a great
deal or work with someone who does and so I wanted to share this story -
the story of a miracle. I am thankful to be here to tell the tale.
There is a great deal to be learned including: Why has this happened to
me? Why have I survived and what am I supposed to do with this gift? For
me, the answers to these questions and more will come over time, but
already I find myself being more patient and forgiving, less
critical and judgmental.
For now I have 4 lessons I would like to share:
1. Cherish your families as never be fore and go to great lengths to
keep your promises.
2. Be thankful and grateful for everything you have and don't worry
about the things you don't have.
3. Keep in shape. You never know when you'll be called upon to save your
own life, or help someone else save theirs.
4. When you fly, wear practical clothing. You never know when you'll end
up in an emergency or on an icy wing in flip flops and pajamas and of
absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else.
Thanks to all who have reached out ...I look forward to seeing you soon!
Gerard P. McNamara
Gerry McNamara works with a wide
range of clients across virtually every industry to include
diversified financial services, insurance, industrial, higher
education, not-for-profit, retail/consumer packaged goods, and
healthcare. His expertise is in understanding the needs of his
client and recruiting world-class technology and operations
executives to help solve business problems. Today, as Managing
Partner, Gerry leads the CIO Practice across The Americas for
Heidrick & Struggles.
Prior to joining Heidrick &
Struggles in 1995, Gerry McNamara spent over 15 years in information
technology with IBM, where he held several high-level sales,
marketing and service positions. Gerry brings to Heidrick &
Struggles an in-depth understanding of the CIO function that is
anchored in his experience within the technology arena, which began
in 1981. Gerry also has a particular focus on senior executive
positions in financial services within the technology and operations
function, including CIOs, managing directors and executive vice
presidents. Before embarking on a corporate career,
Gerry held the rank of Captain in
the United States Marine Corps.