Hometown hails pilot who landed on Hudson

US Airways' Sullenberger says he, crew, just doing their jobs

January 25, 2009|By Maura Dolan | Maura Dolan,Los Angeles Times

DANVILLE, Calif. - Thousands filled the Town Green here yesterday to honor their hometown hero, US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, whose emergency landing in an icy river last week was credited with saving the lives of all 155 people on board.

In a bunting-and-flag-filled demonstration of civic pride, Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich presented Sullenberger with a key to the town, an upscale, family-oriented San Francisco Bay Area suburb known for its good schools, low crime rate and expensive real estate.

The crowd roared and clapped, holding children aloft on their shoulders, waving American flags and signs as Sullenberger stepped forward after speeches by dignitaries and performances by two bands and a bagpipe player.

The pilot told the crowd that it was great to be back home.

"I know I can speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do," Sullenberger said in brief remarks. "Thank you."

His wife, Lorrie, sat next to her husband and fought back tears during the ceremony. The couple's two teenage daughters sat in the front row, facing the stage.

"I seem to have this uncontrollable problem with my tears lately," Lorrie Sullenberger told the crowd, her eyes red and her voice breaking.

She said she loved living in Danville and participating in its Easter egg hunts, holiday tree-lighting and Fourth of July parades.

"It felt so good to come home the other day to such a safe place," she said.

Sullenberger, a modest man, had asked town officials to keep the event low-key.

"He is a very private individual, and he is very self-effacing," said Greg Gilbert, the town's emergency services coordinator turned press secretary for the occasion. "He recognizes that not only his actions but the actions of his crew and flight attendants helped save lives."

In keeping with his wishes, the outdoor celebration was scheduled to last a mere hour, punctuated by proclamations and expressions of gratitude from elected officials.

A retired pilot buzzed his B-51 Mustang over the crowd.

Sullenberger, who turned 58 on Friday, has lived in Danville for 13 years with his wife, a fitness expert, and daughters Katie and Kelly.

Neighbors said the family has raised guide dogs for the blind, walked to raise money for cancer research and collected books and food for the poor.

The neighbors also predicted, correctly, that Sullenberger would be uncomfortable in the spotlight. He declined yesterday to take questions from members of the news media, who arrived in droves for the celebration, and said through a representative that he would not discuss the accident while it remained under investigation.

But fame is fame, and Sullenberger cannot escape it.

"I think he feels the love not only of this community but of the nation and the world," Gilbert said.

Mayor Arnerich said the pilot did "something extraordinary and unprecedented" when he landed the airplane in the Hudson River on Jan. 15.

US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from New York's LaGuardia Airport when it hit a flock of geese and both engines failed.

Sullenberger, judging that the plane could not make it to an airport and could crash into an urban neighborhood, decided to ditch the plane in the river, deftly bringing it down intact on the water.

After the evacuation, Sullenberger twice walked the sinking plane's watery aisle to make sure that no one had been left behind.

Once on shore, the consummate professional spoke with police, his navy blue suit barely wrinkled and his tie not even loosened.

"I can think of at least 155 reasons why our town should join together to celebrate our neighbor and friend and his family," the mayor said.

Although Sullenberger has modestly insisted that he was simply doing his job, the mayor called his actions "an inspiration to every American."

Sullenberger and his family live in a modern, hillside development of upper-middle-class homes with fountains in well-tended yards.

He and his wife are frequently seen walking or running along the quiet streets, usually with a dog in tow, neighbors said.

The town of 42,500 sits in the shadow of towering Mount Diablo, flanked on the opposite side by hills of oaks and redwoods.

Danville is adjacent to the wealthy gated community of Blackhawk, and its downtown includes trendy restaurants and shops.

Crime is rare, so the killing of a teenager last week was big news.

Police arrested a 15-year-old Friday in the shooting death of Rylan Fuchs, 17. It was Danville's first homicide in two years, and police said drugs may have led to the shooting.

Sullenberger grew up in Denison, Texas, where his father was a dentist and his mother was a teacher.

He had a distinguished career flying for the military before his more than 40 years in commercial aviation, the last 29 as a captain with US Airways.

He is also a certified glider pilot and has served as a local safety chairman and accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association International.

He has received calls of congratulations from former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and he and his family attended Obama's inauguration as invited guests.

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