JACKSONVILLE — On his way to the airport, pulling his suitcase across the dark parking lot, he gives himself the speech: Everything is fine. Nothing's going to happen. Don't worry. What is there to worry about?
It doesn't work anymore.
He wheels his bag into the terminal, past the ticket counter, through the long security line. In the door of the US Airways plane, he stops the flight attendant.
"Good morning. I want to introduce myself," he says, thrusting out his right hand.
"I'm Casey Jones. And I was on Flight 1549 — the one that went into the Hudson River."
• • •
You hear about people in plane crashes. You wonder, what was racing through their minds while they were falling?
You marvel that they survived. What would it be like to shiver in knee-deep water, trying to straddle the wing of a sinking plane?
You see the pilot on TV, insisting he was just doing his job that day, when a flock of Canada geese knocked out his jet's engines, and he somehow landed safely.
But what happens to the survivors later — as life goes on?
• • •
Flying used to relax him. Jones, a 48-year-old technology manager at Bank of America, never liked to leave his wife and four children. But he always enjoyed the chance to settle into that airplane seat, turn off the world for a few hours, catch up on some reading, sip a Bailey's.
Last fall, Jones began working on a merger with Merrill Lynch, which meant a trip every other week from Florida to New York. He was heading home that afternoon, Thursday, Jan. 15.
More than two months have passed, and flying isn't getting any easier.
"I'd like to meet the pilots, if that's okay," Jones tells the flight attendant at 7 a.m. on this Monday in March. "I just want to say hello."
"Oh sure, sure!" she says. She ducks into the cockpit. "You have Doug here on your right. And this is Bob, your captain."
"Hi! I'm Casey Jones. And I was on 1549," he says, shaking their hands. "Ever since, when I fly, I just want to introduce myself and meet you all. It makes me feel better, to know who's up here."
The captain smiles. "Well, I'm no Sully Sullenberger. But I'm sure glad to see you're still flying with us."
They thank him for stopping in. He thanks them for all they do. "And if you need any help," he says, "I know how to work those life jackets now."
Jones leaves the cockpit laughing. But when he walks down that narrow aisle to his seat and smells the plane's stale recycled air, his chest tightens. He listens — really listens — to the flight attendant explaining what to do in an emergency. He hears the engines fire behind him. Hears the captain call, "Flight attendants, prepare for take-off." Jones' hands start shaking. He grips the armrests.
That's when it happened before, just after he heard those words. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and ...
Now he won't close his eyes on a plane. As the jet noses into the sky, he stares out the window and says the Catholic prayer you're supposed to say before you die.
• • •
That day in January, Jones was in seat 7A, by the window, in front of the left wing. He was starting to doze when he heard a loud pop, like when your stereo gets turned on too quickly.
The plane shuddered. A couple of women shrieked. He smelled something burning.
The pilot made a sharp left. But instead of continuing to climb, they were starting to fall. He saw the Manhattan skyline below: all those buildings, coming at them. He felt the engine rattle violently, then go still. He held his breath. The plane banked left again, lower this time; it seemed to slow.
Now no one was screaming. Jones pulled his BlackBerry from his pocket. He wanted to call his wife, tell her how much he loved her. He wanted those to be his last words. But his fingers fumbled the small keys, he couldn't type his password. He thought of her having to tell the kids.
What if the plane breaks apart? What if it catches fire? Jones swiveled to look over his shoulder. The emergency exit was a couple of rows back. He crossed himself and prayed.
Hail Mary, full of grace … What if we crash in the city? … The Lord is with thee … What if we crash in the water? … Blessed art thou among women …
"Pull up! Pull up!" someone shouted in the cockpit. The plane rocked. Jones felt his head smack the seatback. Then, for the first time since take-off, the captain's voice came over the intercom, calm and clear: "Brace for impact."
Jones ducked his head between his knees and wrapped his arms around his ears. But he wanted to see. So he tipped his head to look out.
When the tail smashed into the Hudson, Jones' forehead slammed the seatback tray in front of him. Blood oozed from a gash in his scalp. And he saw the gray-green river lapping against the window.
He was alive. How could he be alive? He had to get out. How could he get out?
• • •
Monday's flight first takes him to D.C. He prays through the turbulence, while coffee sloshes out of his cup. He tries to watch House on his iPod, but can't concentrate. He envies the man next to him, who is snoring.
Even at home, he can't sleep more than a couple of hours at a time. He keeps having nightmares. He slips off an icy wing, and then free-falls through the sky.
He won't have a drink in the air any more either. He wants his head clear. He watches out the window, marveling at clouds. He never used to care about clouds.
Just after 9 a.m., the plane starts its slow descent. It's okay, Jones tells himself as land comes into view. You're fine. He really is.
Until the pilot banks left and the thick rope of the Potomac River appears.
• • •
You want to think you'll do the right thing in a disaster. Maybe even be a hero.
But on that January day, after he realized he was still alive, his first thought was to save himself. He didn't trample anyone, didn't push. But he feels horrible he didn't try to help. Everyone seemed to have tunnel vision. All they could do was react.
Jones grabbed a seat cushion and headed for the aisle, threading the throng of frightened people, sloshing in ankle-deep water. When he got to the emergency exit, the slide was full and people were diving into the icy water. Some worried it might explode. Others knew it would sink, and thought they might be sucked down with it.
Jones remembered a Mythbusters episode where scientists prove a sinking ship doesn't cause a vortex. Besides, he's not much of a swimmer. So he looked to his right, saw three other passengers on the wing, and climbed on with them.
The air was 20 degrees, the water not much warmer. He could smell the sharp stench of jet fuel, could see its rainbow sheen spilling across the river. As more people evacuated, Jones had to keep moving down the wing to make room. The cold water climbed to his calves, then his knees. How long would it take a plane to sink?
On the end of the wing, he planted his black dress shoes wide apart and tried to balance like a surfer. He pulled out his phone and called his 20-year-old daughter, Cailin, at college. "I'm okay," he said shakily, the wind muffling his words. "But I've been in a plane crash. I love you."
"A plane crash? Daddy?"
• • •
Seventeen minutes. That's how long he waited to be rescued. Add the six minutes they were in the air, and the entire ordeal didn't take as long as Jones' drive to the airport.
But the experience changed him, he says. His friends and family agree. He can't concentrate. He stares at sunsets and stars and things he never noticed before. He schedules family days, plays baseball with his boys. When the dogs jump on him, he doesn't get mad. He calls his wife 10 times a day. "He had to fall out of the sky for that to happen," she says.
Jones' biggest worry is that he's supposed to be doing something big. But he can't figure out what that is.
He tells his story to everyone who asks. Here's his message: Look what you have! Drink it up. Love your family.
He speaks at churches, at a community college, next month at a high school. He's not sure where this is all going, or if it helps anyone else. It helps him.
He talked to a therapist. Talked to his priest. Talked to his mom and other survivors and the pilots of all 20 planes he has flown on since then. He's starting to heal.
The only visible scar is on the toe of his left Cole-Haan shoe: a spider web of scratches, from where it scraped across the ferry boat deck. He's still wearing those shoes. They finally dried.
• • •
On his way through the D.C. airport, he gives himself the speech again: Everything is fine.
He's got one more flight before he reaches New York.
"Good morning," he says, stopping the flight attendant In the door of the US Airways plane. "I want to introduce myself ..."
At take-off, he watches through the window. An hour later, the plane shudders. The plane lurches side to side. In front of him, a woman gasps. "Listen," he says, leaning forward. "You hear that? Those are the engines. They're still working. So we're okay."
But as the plane descends through the clouds, and Manhattan's skyline comes into view, Jones begins to pale. His heart races. Below his window snakes the dark swath of the Hudson.
"Down there," he tells the woman next to him. "You see the Statue of Liberty?" His voice is shaking. "We went down right there, at 48th Street. Then we floated."
His head drops. He seems to study the scuff on his shoe.
"You okay?" asks the woman.
Jones reaches toward her and clasps her hands in his. His palms are damp with sweat. He holds on until the wheels touch down.