"I have a richer, fuller life than I did before," Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III tells PEOPLE
It’s been 15 years since the "Miracle on the Hudson," when US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency water landing in the Hudson River. But Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III still feels the weight of saving all 155 people onboard.
"My definition of success for that flight was complete, absolute: had even one person perished, I would've considered it a tragic failure,” the 72-year-old now-retired pilot tells PEOPLE. “I couldn't have celebrated any of this."
The stunning landing thrust Sullenberger into the spotlight with honors that included an invite to former President Barack Obama's 2009 Inauguration, a dramatized retelling of the crash in 2016's Sully and the Sullenberger Aviation Museum, which now houses the Airbus A320.
Still, he says he stayed mindful of the fact that while the world may have celebrated what went on that day, "it was still traumatic for everyone on the airplane and their families."
Passenger Brad Wentzell, who sat in seat 21C, still remembers the "massive impact" after the plane struck a flock of geese following their departure from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.
"I had a perfect view of that left engine where I was sitting, and it was on fire. It was sparks coming out, flames coming out," he says. "You just knew something was wrong."
According to the audio recording of Sullenberger's conversation with air traffic control, the Air Force veteran told the controller that the plane "lost thrust in both engines." Though the controller got clearance for the plane to return to LaGuardia and later offered nearby Teterboro Airport as another option, the pilot felt confident there was another choice. "We can’t do it," he said. "We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Wentzell, 46, says he felt like Sullenberger was doing “the best job” that he could amid their terrifying descent as flight attendants yelled to brace for impact.
But the North Carolina man decided not to put his head down, thinking they were all “done" for. Wentzell, who at the time traveled 49 to 50 weeks out of the year for work, says that his decision, which he doesn’t "advise," may have given him an advantage.
What also calmed him was imagining that his 2½-year-old daughter was with him.
"Every dad knows the smell of their kids — a combination of bath, mischief, baby powder,” he says. “I could physically smell it, and I was very calm in that panicked time. For whatever reason, it calmed me. It straightened me out for a second, where I could actually absorb dying.”
Since he was able to think clearly, Wentzell was able to help other passengers to safety, including mom Tess Sosa and her baby.
"Besides the people grabbing their stuff, which was slowing things down, there was also a traffic jam on the wing because there was no more room for people to step," he says.
"I said, 'If you don't go back and help her, you're never going to sleep a day in your life,' and then I made the decision that, in my opinion, changed my life," Wentzell adds. "I chose being helpful over me."
Sullenberger says one reason why the crash continues to resonate all these years later is because it "gave people hope" and was a "bright spot" during the 2008–2009 financial crisis.
"This was the bit of good news that people needed to hear to reassure them that human nature wasn't just about self-interest and greed, as it seemed at the time, but that we all had the potential to rise to the occasion, work together and save every single life," he notes.
Michael Leonard, who at the time worked for Belk department stores, was on the flight with colleagues. He recalls working to push people up to the ferry workers as passengers stood on the wings of the plane, helping others — including his boss — who ended up in the chilly waters.
Throughout the scary ordeal, the 52-year-old says it never crossed his mind that he could die.
"It wasn't until Monday after the crash when my company brought in a therapist for the six of us who [were] on the flight to talk to," he says. "And I'm sitting there with five colleagues, all women who I work with, and hearing their stories, and every single one of them makes me cry."
Leonard, also of Charlotte, says it took him weeks before he could "understand and process what happened," adding that it "very much changed my entire life."
Sullenberger, who is an author and served as an ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization, says that the incident was "life-changing" for him, too.
"I have a richer, fuller life than I did before," he says. "I'm doing things professionally as a keynote speaker that I never anticipated. I never thought I'd be good at it. I was never one who sought the limelight or wanted to be the life of the party, or [was] comfortable talking in front of big groups, and now it's amazing what you can learn to do and become good at.”
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What happened that day also had an impact on the passengers.
"[The passengers] feel like they've gotten a second chance in life, and they changed directions and [are] trying to live a truer path, a more authentic life, what they really wanted to do, what's really important to them," says Sullenberger.
Some, like Leonard and Wentzell, have made major changes to their lives, from relationships to jobs. After making a career pivot, Lawrence now owns his own company and has flown around the world 15 times.
“I could be gone tomorrow,” Leonard says. “Doing something simple and easy, you could just be gone, so why not take chances?"
Another thing that's important to many of the survivors is getting a chance to spend time with each other.
Leonard says he refers to his fellow passengers as his “crash buddies."
“I'm very much in contact with the five former work colleagues,” he shares. “And there's a group of us that meet regularly." He adds that he plays poker with another survivor too.
On Thursday night, Sullenberger, passengers Barry Leonard and Pam Seagle, first responder Dr. Hilda Roque, Katie Couric and Sully producer Allyn Stewart came together for a partial reunion at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. Tom Hanks, who played "Sully" in the Clint Eastwood-directed film, made an appearance via pre-recorded video. Other passengers were among the members of the audience.
Flight 1549 first officer Jeff Skiles says the event provided a great opportunity to see several passengers in person.
"We keep in touch and will, I'm sure, for the rest of our lives," the American Airlines pilot shares.
“Those of us who were on the airplane — passengers and crew — when we talk to each other, we kind of get it,” Sullenberger says. “We understand what each other's going through because we're going through the same things ourselves.”
According to Sullenberger, the “Miracle of the Hudson” has shown that despite divisions, Americans are "all more alike than we are different."
“I think that one of the things this story has done is to remind people of the potential we have and that it's still a source of hope [despite] how divided we are," he says. "Ultimately, we will do what we can and make life better for the next generation."
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