Anna Mae Terry, standing in the bullpen of desks on the northern end of Venable’s ninth floor Baltimore office, pressed the phone receiver tighter against her ear.
She struggled to hear her boss, attorney James J. Hanks, Jr., speak overtop the whirling helicopters, warbling sirens and wailing bystanders, a symphony of mayhem concentrated in her dime-sized ear piece.
“My flight crashed in the Hudson River,” repeated the 63-year-old Hanks, soaked from the neck down and aboard a ferry boat motoring towards Manhattan from the water-logged US Airways Flight 1549.
Attorney James J. Hanks Jr., relaxing in his chair office at Venable LLC, on the 9th Floor of Baltimore's Constelation Building six days after his commercial airliner had an emergency landing in the Hudson River.
About 24 hours after pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger, III declared “Mayday” in the cockpit of that Airbus A320, Hanks was back on LaGuardia Airport’s tarmac, where his doomed flight to Charlotte, NC on January 15, 2009 took off at 3:26 p.m. and intersected with migrating geese less than two minutes into its ascension, jamming both 4-ton engines.
Hanks had a chilling realization sitting on the runway for a second straight day. “It did occur to me that if there were geese out there yesterday,” he recalls, “there could be geese out there today.”
But Hanks had only his fear to check at the gate on January 16, mainly because his travel luggage was ruined in the Hudson waters the previous day.
He touched down at BWI Airport and stopped by the office. Terry, his secretary for the past four years, greeted him there with a big hug. She told him, “I want to count your fingers and toes.” Hanks smiled and gave her his hands. He was thankful to be safe and home, but he knew he had to head back to the airport as soon as possible.
The airline industry is an important industry for this corporate law attorney, who is an adjunct professor at Cornell and Northwestern Law Schools, as well as the inaugural recipient of MSBA’s Business Law Section’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“There is nobody that’s done more for corporate law in Maryland than Jim Hanks,” says Section Chair Henry Ward Classen. “He is a leader in the legal practice.”
Internationally recognized, Hanks flies a great deal throughout the year and stays up-to-speed with the airline industry. He was meeting with clients in New York City on January 15 and in Charlotte the following day. The most important things in his life, however, were an ocean away. His wife, Sabine, and 4-year-old daughter, Maria Dorothy, were in Austria for the last days of their vacation. Hanks knew in order to get to his family, which desperately wanted to see him after the highly publicized “Miracle on the Hudson”, he had to fly the 700+ miles roundtrip to Charlotte for work and then the 4,000+ miles to Austria.
Some would understandably refrain from air travel after an experience like Hanks had in the Hudson, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not going to let my life be dictated by a bunch of geese,” he states flatly.
He boarded the trans-Atlantic flight on January 22, 2009. His arrival at their Austrian abode finally settled Sabine’s tired nerves.
News coverage of Flight 1549’s splash down interrupted television programming all over the world, including in Austria. Though reports at the time were uncertain, the circumstances aboard the U.S. Airways flight are now well-documented.
Passengers sat in eerie silence after the engines collided with a few geese. The jet propulsion shutdown. The pilots acted.
"As soon as I got out of my seat, I was immediately in water up to my waist."
James J. Hanks Jr.
Passanger US Airways Flight 1549
Flight 1549 essentially became a glider 3,200 feet above the Bronx. Capt. Sullenberger (“Sully”) radioed his situation and, initially, they planned to land at neighboring Teterboro Airport, which Sully eyed from the cockpit. But the plane was too low and didn’t have enough speed.
Some passengers smelled smoke by this point and others saw the left engine on fire. The situation appeared dire and the pilot made a brave decision.
“We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” Sully told the air traffic controller in a tone as steady as the channel’s southern current. He then told the passengers, “Brace for impact.”
Hanks, perched in an isle seat, maintains everyone remained calm just before the belly of the steel bird thrashed into the icy wakes of the river.
Sabine, on the other hand, sat glued to the television set, awaiting more information on her husband’s flight.
“She could see the people on the wings,” says Hanks, “she could see people on the life rafts, but she couldn’t see me. She told me later she really thought I was going to die.”
Hanks was, in fact, in one of the life rafts that drifted away from the sinking airplane, but had been in the frigid waters for some time before stepping into the rubber float.
“As soon as I got out of my seat,” recalls Hanks, “I was immediately in water up to my waist.”
He waded to the rear door of the plane from his seat in the third-to-last row. The door, however, would not open and the water had risen to his neck.
“I thought, at that point, I was going to drown,” Hanks says, “because the water was rising, there wasn’t much room above my head and I was back there alone. I couldn’t envision that 155 people were going to be able to get out of that aircraft before I could.”
Staring at a dead end, Hanks turned and moved up the isle, toward the cockpit. The water receded as he walked and he eventually stood on dry carpet once he got to the front exit.
All 155 people, including the flight crew, made it off the aircraft with the most serious injury being a deep gash to a flight attendant’s leg, which Hanks initially attended to on the raft before a doctor stepped in.
The calm, collected aftermath and orderly exit from the plane should not underscore the severity of the situation.
“I’ve read people saying, ‘Well [Capt. Sullenberger was] just doing his job, how can he be a hero?’” says Hanks, “but pilots all over the world have been saying that this is unprecedented. Nobody can think of a time when somebody brought a fully-loaded commercial aircraft to a water-landing where everyone survived. I think that’s more than doing your job. To me, he’s a hero.”
“I am grateful to God and the captain,” wrote Hanks in an e-mail.
The drip-dried blue suit he wore to meet with clients on January 15 is folded over the back of a chair in his Baltimore office and the bright green tie that accompanied the outfit rests on top. He also still has the white Red Cross blankets and the blue NYPD sweat suit he received from the Emergency Response team once on shore.
These fabric mementos decorate his office along with his Business Law Section Lifetime Achievement glass vase and his framed ticket to the 1993 MLB All-Star game at Camden Yards. They serve as a reminder for the heroics and compassion he received in the Miracle on the Hudson, an event that will soon be in the periphery for many.
“I just wanted to say Hi to you.” said Venable attorney Richard Wasserman, stopping by Hanks’ corner office on January 21. “Good to see you in person.”
“I’m here, I’m dried off,” Hanks responded with a smile.
“You’re a celebrity now.”
Hanks waved, “Fifteen minutes of fame…”