On January 15, 2009, a cold, blustery day in New York City, 150 passengers and five crew members boarded U.S. Airways Flight 1549. Just before 3:30 p.m., the plane took off for Charlotte, North Carolina, and soared high above the city's skyscrapers.
Two and half minutes later, passengers heard a huge boom. It quickly became clear that something was terribly wrong. In the cockpit, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger—known as "Sully"—radioed back to LaGuardia Airport. "Hit birds," he said. "We've lost thrust in both engines."
Air traffic control told him to head back toward the airport, but it was too late. A collision with a flock of birds caused both engines to fail. In a matter of seconds, Capt. Sullenberger made the decision to land the plane wherever he could. His best option? The icy waters of the Hudson River.
Nearby boats sped to the scene, and five minutes after the plane first touched down, all 155 people were pulled to safety.
That day, hundreds of emergency workers—firefighters, police officers, divers, boat captains and medics—rushed to the scene and helped make the "Miracle on the Hudson" possible. Now, 22 of these first responders join Oprah onstage for a round of applause.
Boat captain Vince Lombardi was first on the scene, arriving just three minutes after the plane landed. He and his crew rescued 56 terrified men and women from Flight 1549.
"I had people on the wing cheering and screaming, 'Oh thank God,'" he says. "There were a few people crying, but most of all, everybody was cheering. They just had this overwhelming look of joy on their faces."
Capt. Sullenberger says he spent his entire life preparing for these seconds.
"I didn't have time to learn what I needed to know," he says. "I had to have done hard work for decades, for tens of thousands of hours, to prepare for that moment."
Capt. Sullenberger says the day may have gone much differently without the help of the first responders, many of whom received thank-you notes from him after the water rescue.
"This was a team effort. It required not only First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, flight attendants Donna Dent, Sheila Dail and Doreen Welsh doing their parts, but all the first responders," Capt. Sullenberger says. "Had any part of that puzzle not been the same, we wouldn't have had as good a day as we did."
In October 2009, Capt. Sullenberger took to the skies again, and his return was marked by a reunion of sorts. A few passengers from Flight 1549 were on board—some in their original seats—and Jeffrey Skiles was once again his first officer. "To make it even better, Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller whose voice we've all heard on that tape, came into work early that day just to work our New York LaGuardia departure," he says.
"I personally want to say thank you to all the first responders," says Josh, one of the passengers. "It goes without saying you have the training that was requisite to get the job done, but you also had the instincts, the character, the wherewithal and the heart to bring us all home."
As a special surprise, Joe Girardi, team manager of the New York Yankees—the 2009 World Series champions—joins the celebration via Skype™. To honor these heroes, Joe gives each first responder VIP tickets to a Yankees game and invites them to meet the team at batting practice this spring. "If we need any swings rescued, maybe you can help us out," Joe says.
After volunteering at the Special Olympics, high school cheerleader Sarah Herr and her teammate, Sarah Cronk, approached their coach with an idea. They wanted to create a cheerleading squad that included girls with special needs. "I wanted to make the connection with the special needs community more permanent," Sarah Herr says.
Since then, Bettendorf, Iowa, has been home to the Spartan Sparkles! This new squad includes girls ages 8 to 15 who were born with a range of developmental disabilities, from autism to Down syndrome. This program is the first of its kind at a high school.
Watch the Sparkles in action!
Now, girls who would otherwise be on the sidelines have people cheering them on. Parents of these cheerleaders say their daughters are blossoming. "They have given them the opportunity to be who they are and have the community and everyone accept them," says Dawn, a Sparkle mother. "It's not disability. It's ability. It's what they can do."
Sarah Herr says she always thought the Sparkles would become friends, but she didn't realize they would become like a family. "We learned to see the person, not the disability," she says. "It's really given all of us a powerful voice. We've learned that even though we're teenagers, we can really make things happen."
"You guys are amazing!" Miley said. "I would love to have you all as VIP guests at my show in Indianapolis. You guys are so awesome, and I just want to thank you personally for all the good that you have done."
After the cheering subsided, the Sparkles packed their bags and headed to Indianapolis to see Miley in concert. When they arrived, Miley surprised them backstage, where they sang, danced and did a few cheers.
At the end of her concert, Miley invited every member of the squad onstage to help sing the final song, "The Climb." "These girls are heroes to me," she said.
Alan Girard's day started just like it had every day for the past 13 years—until he spotted an apartment complex on fire along his route. The first on the scene, he rushed into the burning building without any thought for his own life. With the help of four other carriers who arrived at the scene, Alan helped dozens of elderly residents escape the flames. "I go to deliver mail there now and someone will be with a little child and say: 'That's the man. That's the man who saved Grandpa,'" he says. "[It's] absolutely the most incredible feeling you could ever have."
Melissa Kelley, a mother of two, was on her regular route when she saw an elderly man being attacked by a pit bull. She threw her body in front of the man and used pepper spray to fight off the dog. The man says she saved his life. "I was just at the right place at the right time," she says. "He always tells me I'm his angel."
Robert Sweeny was just finishing his day when a terrified mother ran out of her house. Her infant wasn't breathing. Robert fearlessly grabbed the baby from her arms and began performing CPR. Paramedics say he saved the baby's life. "I never thought I'd have to do that," he says. "It was emotional."
Walter Hayes was delivering the mail when he witnessed a 6-year-old boy get hit with a car. Walter rushed to his side and immediately called 911. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, Walter threw his own body over the boy's to keep him warm and stave off shock. "Our job is not just to carry the mail," he says. "We're basically an extension of your family."
Watch the emotional homecoming.
Sgt. Soloman is thrilled to be able to spend the holidays with his family. Sgt. Soloman says he's looking forward to cooking pancake breakfasts for his family and tucking his children in at night. "With deployment, it's not just missing family but missing the moments," he says.
Sgt. Soloman's wife says she's especially thankful this holiday season. "This has been a hard deployment. It's not our first, like many of the wives sitting in here and on this base and all over America," she says. "But I'm just so thankful to have a husband [who] even though it's his duty to go away, he puts his family first before his duty and finds a way to be with us every day in some way, shape, form or fashion, and he's an amazing man, not just an amazing soldier, and I'm sure there's a lot of wives here that could say the same thing."
"The thing that really humbles me about the military is the humility with which these people operate," Wynonna says. "It's about community, come in unity. There's no one person."