‘Brace for Impact’

Venable’s James Hanks Jr. was the last passenger out of Flight 1549

Published in 2010 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2010

More than a million. That’s how many miles James Hanks Jr., a partner at Venable in Baltimore, guesses he’s flown in his lifetime.

For 40 years, he has specialized in Maryland corporate law—he is, in fact, the author of the 600-page treatise Maryland Corporation Law—which is second only to Delaware as the governing law of New York Stock Exchange-listed companies. Which means three or four times per month, Hanks takes to the air on business.

His flights aren’t limited to the States. For the past 14 years, he’s been teaching in Paris at a joint program between Cornell Law School and the Sorbonne. He also teaches at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg and in the Northwestern Law School–Institute de Empressa Executive LL.M program in Madrid. For seven years he assisted in the drafting of the new South Africa Companies Act 2008. And whenever possible he and his family vacation at their second home in Austria.

But all that flight experience didn’t prepare him for the events of Jan. 15, 2009. Hanks was aboard geese-obstructed Flight 1549 from New York City to Charlotte when the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, announced over the intercom: “Brace for impact.”

“Three words I’d never heard before in a commercial airliner,” says Hanks. “It was a little puzzling because, even though we had lost power in both engines, we still had altitude, the captain had control of the aircraft, and there was nothing obvious that we were about to hit.”

Flight attendants quickly reviewed crash landing procedures with passengers and everybody ducked and held onto their heads. Moments later, the Airbus A320 slammed into the Hudson River at approximately 150 mph. “The impact was enormous in every sense,” says Hanks. “Water is not that forgiving; it’s better than hitting concrete, but not by much.”

His seat was in the rear of the plane, which took the brunt of the impact and sank lower than the rest of the fuselage. Removing a piece of metal that had fallen into his lap, he stepped into the aisle where water was already up to his waist. Hanks followed instructions and headed for the nearest exit, which was behind him, but the rear doors were jammed shut, one of them twisted in its frame, and water surged in through ruptures in the underbelly of the aircraft.

“Water quickly rose up to my neck,” says Hanks, who stands 6-feet tall. “I was sure I was going to drown. I thought about my wife, Sabine, and how she was going to become a widow. And I thought about my daughter, Maria Dorothy, and how she was going to grow up without a father. Then my final thought was, ‘She’s so young—only 4 years old—in later years, she’s not even going to remember me.’ And those were the three saddest thoughts of my life.”

Thinking he wouldn’t make it out alive, Hanks turned and made his way up the aisle. To his surprise, the frigid water slowly receded. Sunlight was streaming in through the forward door, and he fixed his eyes on it as he moved forward, the water level slipping down his body with each step. There was little panic; everyone was orderly. After stepping across the exit ramp into an inflated life raft, the last passenger to exit the plane, he noticed the flight attendant sitting next to him was bleeding from her leg. “The gash was several inches long,” Hanks says, “and it was deep and you could see right into the flesh. Another guy and I tried to wrap her leg with a blanket and a belt in a pretty amateurish way. Then a young fourth-year medical student took over and he really knew what to do.”

Ferryboats crowded around the downed aircraft and Hanks grabbed the metal ladder to keep the life raft steady while passengers climbed to safety. “Here I was,” he recounts, “soaked from the neck down and the air temperature is 20 degrees. While I had no sense of cold—I wasn’t even shivering, unaccountably—but my left hand began to stick to this metal ladder. I had to keep moving my hand around to keep it from freezing to the ladder.”

The next afternoon Hanks boarded another US Airways flight scheduled to take off at the same time. There was no hesitation. “Not flying is not an option for me,” he says. Then he adds with a chuckle, “Although I do have to admit it occurred to me as I boarded the flight to Baltimore that if there were geese out there yesterday at this time, there could be geese out there today. But I’m not going to let my life be run by a bunch of geese.”

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