US Airways Flight 1549 passenger grateful for life -- and data

Recovering his data from online backup systems meant one less thing to worry about

Moments after Paul Jorgensen realized the commercial jet he was aboard was about to land in the Hudson River, he turned to the passenger next to him, grabbed his arm and asked him, "Are we going to die?"

"He looked me square in the eye and he nodded. He didn't say anything. He just shook his head up and down like saying yes, we're going to die," Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen, 38, a vice president of sales at Epocrates Inc., a medical software company, was sitting in a window seat in the first row of the first class section of US Airways Flight 1549 on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 15. The other 150 passengers in the plane that had left LaGuardia Airport headed for Charlotte only six minutes earlier were strangely calm and quiet as the aircraft dipped between the skyscrapers of Manhattan and New Jersey.

Only a few of the passengers were talking, and they were communicating in what Jorgensen described as non-panicked voices. He heard one or two saying that the plane must be attempting to head back to the airport.

The plane's aircrew, led by 57-year-old Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- a former Air Force fighter pilot -- had already decided that the plane couldn't reach the safety of an airfield and had turned south, away from the George Washington Bridge and over the Hudson River next to Manhattan.

Jorgensen said the aircraft did not buck or pitch -- it smoothly but quickly descended to the water. The fast and even descent was deceiving. Even though Jorgensen used his legs and arms to brace himself with all his might, the impact folded his body in half at the waist, driving his chest into his knees. The crash was so violent that the man seated next to him broke his sternum. Jorgensen was left with a huge bruise on his chest for weeks.

Jorgensen normally didn't fly home on a Thursday, but he wanted to get home for his two-year-old daughter's birthday.
Paul Jorgensen and his daughter Ryan, who turned three the day after the crash.

The now famous ditching of the airplane in the Hudson ended with all 150 passengers and five crew members stepping safely into rescue boats. It left Jorgensen with a new outlook on life and, as an important afterthought, a new appreciation for online data backup systems. Just like other passengers, Jorgensen lost his luggage. He also lost his ThinkPad laptop and two backup hard drives that he always carried in case the laptop crashed.

Jorgensen's group of stranded passengers was picked up by a New Jersey ferry. As the other passengers were loaded onto the ferry, Jorgensen kept busy asking if he could help in any way, but was told, "Dude, chill out. Go inside and relax."

At one point in the ferry, Jorgensen stared at the enormous plane floating nearby and found himself thinking, "damn, I wish could get in there right now. My laptop's in there, all my stuff is right there. It's not underwater yet. If I could just grab my laptop bag, I'd have all my data. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was contemplating it. That's how much stuff I had in there that I didn't want to lose. I didn't want to deal with losing all that."

From a ferry terminal, Jorgensen's group was taken a short distance away to a senior center in Weehawken, N.J., on the shore of the Hudson. When Jorgensen was paged over the senior center's intercom and told he had a phone call, he was startled to hear his boss's voice on the other end of the line.

"My boss is one of the greatest guys in the world. He knew I had been in the plane. He tracked me down at the senior center." Jorgensen said he filled his boss in on the details of the crash and even joked with his boss. Eventually, he was asked what he'd lost on the flight, which included credit cards, driver's license, paperwork, cell phone and his laptop.

"I only had the coat on my back," he said.

The only thing else not lost forever was the data stored on the laptop, copies of which were kept on the servers of an online backup company. Epocrates uses Mozy Inc. to back up data and, uncharacteristically, Jorgensen had backed up his files the night before the flight. Six DVDs holding the data were sent to Jorgensen on Jan. 19, just four days after the crash. "I was left without an excuse to not work. It was almost too quick," he joked.

While Jorgensen is candid about not promoting any particular product, he is grateful for having not lost any data and is quick to evangelize about the importance of backing up data offsite rather than just to local hard drives. Without the backup, he would have not only lost all of his business data, but a lot of personal data and photos that he kept on the lost laptop.

It was one less thing to worry about, he noted.

Normally, Jorgensen wouldn't have been on a Thursday flight out of New York, where he works three days a week meeting with Wall Street analysts to share data on how his company's products are used. Most weeks, Jorgensen flew home to his wife and two daughters in Charlotte on a Friday. He left early that week to get ready for his 3-year-old daughter's birthday on Jan. 16.

Jorgensen thought the loud boom that resounded through the plane as it was taking on altitude out of La Guardia must have been a mid-air collision -- perhaps a smaller plane grazing the US Airways Airbus A320. He never imagined a flock of Canada geese could have caused both engines to shut down. "It wasn't like multiple hits. There was one very big boom," he said.

Though Jorgensen had a good view outside the plane, he couldn't see the flames shooting from the two engines, but the smell of smoke quickly permeated the cabin. Jorgensen said he knew something bad was going to happen.

As the plane neared the surface of the river, an unsettling chant came from the three stewardesses, two of whom were seated in the rear and one in the front of the plane. "They were saying, 'brace, brace, brace. Heads down, stay down.' They said it over and over and over. They must have said it 100 times. They said it in unison," he said. "That just scared the bejesus out of me. I was paralyzed with fear."

"My life didn't flash before my eyes. But I thought a lot about my children. I have two daughters, 5 and 3. I thought about my wife. I thought about the complexity of our lives and all the things I deal with that they were now going to have to deal with," he said.

As soon as the plane had settled in the water, flight attendant Donna Dent jumped to open the emergency latch on the front, main cabin door. The latch was supposed to automatically deploy an inflated rubber chute that lead to a lifeboat. It failed. Dent struggled to find a backup cord to pull. Jorgensen said he asked if he could help. Before either could find the chord, the man who Jorgensen had been sitting next to pushed past Dent and jumped into the water.

Jorgensen waited and Dent found the cord. He slid down the chute into the life raft and sat there as other passengers climbed aboard. The group stayed in the raft for about 10 minutes, "just long enough for me to call my wife and tell her I'd been in a plane crash and scare the fool out of her."

Jorgensen spent five sleepless nights after the crash of US Airways Flight 1549. "I'm not talking about a half hour of sleep here or there. I literally didn't sleep for four or five days," he said. "Slowly over time, a couple weeks after the crash -- it didn't happen overnight -- I came to grips with things; I started to realize it was a blessing that I was in that plane. It was such a positive story for the nation."

"With all the bad going on, the negative things going on, it was satisfying being a small part of such a great story," he said. "I've used it as fuel to be better with my second chance, to be better at everything -- be a better father, a better husband, better son, better brother, better employee. I've turned it into a positive."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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