After US Airways Flight 1549 Crashed…

Dave Sanderson believed he was tuned into his version of the American Dream. Then came the airplane crash.

Sanderson had started his career in the restaurant industry before settling into technology sales, working his way into a large-account position with the California-based tech firm Oracle. By January 2009, he was traveling more than 100 times a year and moonlighting as director of security for motivational speaker Tony Robbins. “I had a wife and four kids. I was driven to make sure that I had enough, to make sure that my kids could go to college and have a decent life,” he says today from his North Carolina office.

Because of his frenetic schedule, Sanderson wasn’t always available for family events and “didn’t give much more than the bare minimum community-wise up to that point,” the 54-year-old says. He donated blood regularly; gave a little bit back to his alma mater, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.; and served on the executive committee of his church.

On Jan. 15, 2009, the crash of U.S. Airways Flight 1549—and the Red Cross blanket, virtual and metaphorical—changed all that. Sanderson was aboard, headed home from a sales call. Shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the airliner collided with a flock of geese, crippling the jet. The flight’s captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, ditched the plane in the icy Hudson River and executed a successful evacuation.

Getting Everyone Out

Sanderson, seated in 15A, was the last passenger off the plane. “I didn’t even think of making sure that everyone got out when we came to a stop in the water,” he says. “My thought was, Get to the aisle, get up and get out. But when I got up, I heard my mom’s voice [she died in 1997] in my head, saying, If you do the right thing, God will take care of you. And that’s the moment when everything sort of shifted for me. It’s like that Boy Scout moment [he was one] where you do the right thing: I went to the back of the plane to see if anybody needed help.”

Sanderson and the crew helped get everyone out, and that’s when he ended up in the drink. A rescue boat bumped the plane, forcing it to take on water up to his back. Sanderson, his left eye blurred from jet fuel, jumped into the 36-degree water because the wings were crammed full of evacuated passengers. He swam to a nearby ferryboat, which he grabbed onto until rescue workers could haul him out of the water, in the process becoming Good Morning America’s riveting snapshot from the “Miracle on the Hudson.” He was in the water eight minutes.

Once he was pulled onto the ferry, rescue workers “called ahead and told them I was in the water and not in good shape. So they had three people waiting for me at the dock—two EMTs and a guy from the American Red Cross with a blanket.”

Suffering from severe hypothermia and unable to use his legs, Sanderson was rushed to a triage unit and then to a nearby hospital, where workers said he was in grave danger of suffering a heart attack or stroke. From crash to hospital took only 30 minutes. Because rescue workers had to cut the clothes off Sanderson’s chilled body, a Red Cross worker ventured into the night to buy sweats for him to wear during television interviews. Soon Red Cross representatives were meeting with his wife and children in Charlotte, helping them cope and keeping them apprised of his condition.

The Message of the Blanket

Sanderson often talks about the Red Cross blanket he was handed that day, about how important a symbol it became for him. In speeches and appearances for the emergency relief group since the accident, he has raised about $7.5 million for the organization. “What that blanket has come to stand for in my mind is that you’ve got to be there and be ready when something like this happens because no one expects to go through a plane crash. No one expects to be in a car wreck or fire, but when they are, emergency response organizations are there. One of the things I talk about today is the power of resourcefulness and being there and understanding all the resources that you do have. I never opened the blanket that day. I could barely move that day, but I still have the blanket with me. I opened it when I got home.”

Pam Jeffers, then CEO of the local Red Cross branch, met him at the airport with his family. “We developed a relationship because she was taking care of my family, which was the most important thing that happened in that 14-hour period,” he says.

Sanderson quickly returned to Oracle, working hard but also questioning his life priorities. “Before [Flight] 1549, I was driven by trying to do the best I could, but I didn’t prioritize my time for my family the way I should have. I was also very aware of all those people who served me and the other 154 people that day, and I asked myself, How can I give back?

A month or so later, Jeffers asked Sanderson to speak at her chapter’s annual fundraiser meeting in Charlotte, N.C. Six hundred people attended, and the chapter met its fundraising goal. “Then Pam asked me if I would drop by an event at the mall that she was having for some of their donors, and I did,” he says. While he was there, a representative of the organization’s Tiffany Circle, women who have donated $10,000 to the group (named after the Tiffany windows in the Board of Governors Hall at Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C.), asked him to speak at the group’s annual meeting in Washington.

“That was June of 2009…. There were 400 women and me. Of course, I know they all looked at me like, Why is this guy in the room? Right? Before I was done, however, they had 400 people crying. That’s how my deep Red Cross involvement started.”

A Growing Commitment

Since then he has made more than 100 appearances at Red Cross events.

“Dave Sanderson turned the compassion he received into action, and continues to help those in need all over the country by speaking at Red Cross events and raising money,” says Kay Wilkins, CEO of the South Louisiana Region of the Red Cross, who has worked with Sanderson on numerous occasions for Red Cross events.

All the Red Cross has to do is ask, Sanderson says. “I will not say no. There were a lot of groups that touched a lot of people that day on the New York and New Jersey sides of the Hudson, but the Red Cross touched all of us, whether it was just providing a blanket or somebody being there for us or, most importantly, for our families.”

He shares that message with his children, now ages 13 to 22. “One of the things I would want them to get out of what I do, and I think they’re starting to absorb it, is how can you impact somebody’s life in a positive way?”

Sanderson’s wife, Terri, has been invited to accompany him to many events worldwide since the crash, but she has attended only once, a church function for young people. “I think that’s when she understood why I was doing this,” he says. “So she told me that ‘maybe it’s time to move on [from Oracle].’ Within 48 hours, I did just that.”

He established a consulting/speaking company, Dave Sanderson Speaks. “I schedule everything around my family time, and then I work backward into what I do for a living and how I serve.” He adapted the things he learned from watching Robbins inspire people and developed his own vision around a theme of resourcefulness.

“I think that people are looking for leaders. People are looking for people to give them insight on when something tough goes on in your life, how can you get through it? And they’re looking for people who’ve been through it, whether it’s through the war or people coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq or through a fire or whatever. And that’s why these stories will, I think, survive.”

What turns everyday people into heroes? Find out what makes some people ordinary heroes—complete strangers who step up to help—while others idle on the sidelines.

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John H. Ostdick

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