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Flight attendant recounts 'Miracle Landing'

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For retired flight attendant Doreen Welsh, reliving the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 for National Geographic Channel’s “Miracle on the Hudson” (9 tonight), wasn’t the same as recounting the events of Jan. 15, 2009, for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ms. Welsh, a Western Pennsylvania native and 38-year veteran who began flying at 19 with US Airways’ predecessor Allegheny Airlines, said her NTSB hearing was all about her training and actions; telling her story in direct address to the camera for the Nat Geo film was “more about people, emotion and how people perceived things happening.”

“Miracle Landing on the Hudson”
When: 9 tonight, National Geographic Channel.

“Miracle” mixes scenes of actors re-creating the short flight that ended in the Hudson River after a bird strike with interviews of the actual participants, not all of whom remember that day the same way.

One passenger recalls Ms. Welsh batting out a fire at the rear of the plane after the bird strike; Ms. Welsh said there was no fire.

“I guess in that one passenger’s frightened mind it happened,” Ms. Welsh said. “It does go to show your mind can do a trick on you.”

Ms. Welsh and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles are the only two crew members interviewed in the film (an actor plays Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger), which focuses most heavily on the emotional stories of passengers.

Ms. Welsh, who lives in Economy, Beaver County, never worked another flight after the crash, retiring from US Airways in 2010. She now travels the world as a public speaker, telling her point of view on the experience in a speech titled “90 Seconds to Impact.”

She went to therapy for a year after the crash and struggled with having thoughts of the crash on a daily basis.

“About eight months in, I went, when is this going to go away? And the therapist said, ‘Never,’” she recalled. “Once I accepted it, it became OK. Now it will just be a flash, a thought. I don’t even think about it and something will remind you. Plus, it’s what I do for a living now, answering mail and questions [about the crash]. Once I accepted it, I’m OK with it.”

Even before the crash, the flight was turning out to be memorable. The same passenger who remembers seeing a fire stood up in her seat just as the plane took off, well before the bird strike. In the film, the actress playing Ms. Welsh yells at her, “Miss, sit down, now!”

“I never had a passenger do this in 38 years,” Ms. Welsh said. “She got up with a baby in her arms!”

Just before takeoff, Ms. Welsh had gotten a phone call from her son, saying he’d secured tickets to the AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, and he planned to take his mother with him.

The injuries she sustained in the crash landing prevented her from attending that game, but she did go to Super Bowl XLIII a month later in Tampa, Fla. (The Flight 1549 crew was publicly honored there.) The Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23. (Ms. Welsh reports the damaged portion of her leg just recently faded to a normal color. “It’s quite the scar, but I will never complain. I have my leg, I’m here, I’m happy.”)

Ms. Welsh had been based in Charlotte, N.C., for only 11 months before the accident, and she was there only because US Airways’ Pittsburgh crew base closed. So she hadn’t worked with her fellow flight attendants on Flight 1549 before. She keeps in touch with Mr. Skiles and flight attendant Sheila Dail, who returned to work at US Airways.

“Sheila and I made a conscious effort because you need to know somebody who went through that [crash experience] with you,” Ms. Welsh said of her friend, who lives in Asheville, N.C.. “We don’t let more than three weeks go by without talking. She went back to flying, and we talk about life. We have developed a nice, caring friendship.”

Ms. Welsh, 62, said she always had some fear of flying throughout her career, although she was more afraid of severe turbulence than the possibility of being involved in a crash.

“I still have it,” she said. “I can’t wait to get up and things are sailing smoothly. The only thing now that I’m a passenger – and my flight attendant friends will hate this – I feel a little bit of the other side. I see flight attendants who are not happy and passengers who are annoyed. Flying is not easy these days.”

She said she can understand both passenger and flight attendant points of view.

“I know the flight attendant may not be pleasant that day even though everybody expects them to be perfect, but they’re human beings,” she said. “I’ve had to go to work when going through a lot in my personal life, and someone screaming about another ice cube in their Coke was hard to take. At the same time, I know how uncomfortable it is to sit there. Last fall I had to go to Munich, Germany, for a speech, and how long of a flight is that? I was in the back in coach, and you need to get up and move around, and I see that now.”

TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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