January 16th, 2009
08:49 PM ET

A plane bobbing in the river, and what it means

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/01/16/hudson.plane.crash/art.battery.gi.jpg caption="The disabled Airbus A320 is nearly submerged Friday as it is moored near New York's Battery Park City."]
Brian Vitagliano
CNN Field Producer

When news of a “plane down” in the Hudson River broke, everyone in the CNN New York Newsroom went into breaking news mode. From the Bureau Chief to producers to news assistants everyone picked up the phones and the coordination began. Being a CNN field producer I was eager to get out of the door and start reporting, I also knew the temperature was in the teens and wind chills in the single digits. With producers, reporters and live trucks dispatched to the scene and to various hospitals around the city, I wanted to make myself as useful as possible.

I picked up my gear - a Sony A1U video camera, Apple Mac Book and a wireless Air Card - and headed out the door. Often when you’re a one man/woman band you are able to be more nibble and find access to places and people a larger crew may not. At first I didn’t think it was that cold, but when I got to 43rd street and the West Side Highway, the wind whipping off the Hudson just cut right through me. My first thought was, how are these passengers going to survive without frostbite and, most frightening, hypothermia. I maneuvered through EMS, OEM, NYPD and FDNY trucks and tape to the pier where some of the passengers of flight 1549 were being treated and then taken to the hospital.

Our CNN live truck was further down the West Side Highway and cabling to my location for a live signal was not possible. With my hands getting numb I attempted setting up my DNG (Digital News Gathering) equipment up for live capability. It's essentially a laptop that can transmit to a satellite. Albert Lewitinn, a senior producer for Campbell Brown's "No Bias No Bull" was actually off yesterday, but being the solid journalist he is, he heard the news and made his way down to the site to lend a hand. I had Albert grab the camera as I worked the laptop, trying to lock a signal into CNN Headquarters in Atlanta. When you are covering a breaking news story no matter how big or small the story – time is of the essence. The bitter cold and driving wind made everything more difficult and time consuming. Eventually I got a clean signal into Atlanta and began to stream live video of passengers being escorted into ambulances. It was chaotic and it seemed as if every New Yorker with a still camera or video camera was on the scene trying to capture their own bit of news.

About 6pm, the assignment desk called, sending me to Battery Park City, at the southern tip of Manhattan and probably the coldest part of the city, even on a good day. The U.S Airways plane had drifted down the Hudson River and was now tethered to a wall there on the west side.

By this point I could not feel my face or fingers, regardless of the hat and gloves I had on. The West Side Highway was closed for at least 20 blocks southward. I remember on 9/11 hitching a ride out of ground zero with an EMS truck leaving the scene, I flashed my press pass and asked the driver for a ride as far south he was going. Technically, I am sure they are not supposed to do this but I think he saw the urgency and near frostbite on my face and he said, "get in." I got as far as he could take me and painfully got out of the truck knowing I would have to walk the rest of the way south along the dark river. It took 25 minutes to get down there. The whole time I was thinking about those 155 passengers aboard that plane and knew what I was experiencing was nothing compared to the day they were having.

After 4 hours of covering the plane crash I finally saw the plane, or I should say the left wing. On big stories like this, police keep reporters far back from the scene and casual onlookers even further back. And vehicle access to the area was frozen, so our satellite truck couldn't get close. I fired up my DNG equipment again and sent out a live picture of the plane's left wing sticking out of the water. It is hard to handle the computer and the camera with gloves on so I tried to work as fast a possible without them. After 20 minutes, I noticed a police officer escorting 2 still photographers and tv cameraman down to the plane for a better look. This was my chance. I weaseled my way into the mix with my laptop in one frozen hand and my camera in the other. As I walked down to the plane I knew I was going to get something good, and something others had not seen yet. And I did. I was able to shoot 8 minutes of tape of the remains of flight 1549 as it bobbed in the frigid, black Hudson River.

Afterward I knew I needed warmth. I jumped in a taxi and headed back to the bureau and within 30 minutes my video was on CNN: Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360 and then American Morning.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in covering a story and the logistics, that we don't fully react to events until later on. In the taxi back I took a moment to be thankful that all 155 passengers aboard flight 1549 made it out alive. And then I was warm again.

Filed under: Brian Vitagliano
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Bob Kelly

    Why not have all pilots trained in Gliding

    Several years ago an Air Canada plane without enough fuel on board,because of a switch to metric,ran out of gas in western Canada. He managed to land at an old unused,it was thought at the time, airport safely.
    He was also an experienced glider pilot.
    A great story and one that ties to the "Miracle on the Hudson".

    January 17, 2009 at 11:31 am |
  2. Janice

    Enough already
    Yes, the pilot & crew worked wonders saving lives yesterday, but it doesn't necessitate unending coverage. Let's move on.

    January 17, 2009 at 11:18 am |
  3. KAREN

    I dont understand why birds are flying into plans and killing them selfs,its been happening a while now,but god had his arms around all the servivers,and just mabe birds are trying to tell us something.

    January 17, 2009 at 11:08 am |
  4. Patricia Sharp

    Let's give the guys and gals on the boats the credit they are due. They helped rescue the passengers from US Airways flight 1549 by being there almost immediately after the crash. Without them some of the passengers might NOT have survived!! Yea to all the boat men and women!!!!! Thanks for being there. God bless you all.

    January 17, 2009 at 1:16 am |
  5. Brian S.


    Nice to know what I was watching yesterday on CNN was being produced by a fraternity brother and Marist classmate...nice blog post! It is nice to hear what goes on behind the camera.

    Washington, DC

    January 17, 2009 at 12:43 am |
  6. Stilt

    Wow, that was a great read and really made me feel like I was out there in the cold with you.

    January 17, 2009 at 12:39 am |
  7. pam

    glad it wasn't me. alot of folks are wondering why nothing is being said of the co-pilot, probably because it was the CAPTAIN'S decision to ditch in the river. and the co-p helped certainly, but somebody had to make that decision. thank God they are safe

    January 17, 2009 at 12:14 am |
  8. Dominique Frances Salzmann

    This pilot is a true hero. He should be a special gueston Tuesday January 20, and be seating in the VIP section not far from President Obama.

    January 16, 2009 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Pati Mc

    Awesome post Brian. Thank you. Great job and stay warm.

    January 16, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    Made me cold just reading your account. Thank you for sticking with the story and getting your reports and pictures. Hope you have warmed up by now.

    January 16, 2009 at 9:47 pm |
  11. Clarence Albuquerque

    Just so grateful that the story ended well.

    January 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm |
  12. Robert

    it is amazing the something that is always referred to as a bird(airplane) kind of looks like a sick or beached whale in the water wating to be rescued.

    January 16, 2009 at 9:04 pm |
  13. Wayne from Fullerton, CA

    If Obama is looking for one of those feel-good patriotic moments at the inaguration, he should introduce "Sully", the pilot of that plane. The crowd would go nuts!

    January 16, 2009 at 8:52 pm |