Miracle on the Hudson: Plane crash survivor speaks at St. John’s

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 30, 2009

By Susan Shinn
“What if you found out right now you only had one minute left to live?
“Would you have any regrets, would you have done God’s work, would you be prepared? Do the people you love know you love them, not through your words but through your actions?”
Bill Elkin posed these questions to parishioners Sunday morning at St. John’s Lutheran Church. He spoke at the 8:30 and 11 a.m. worship services.
Interesting questions to ponder sitting on a pew, during a quiet, reflective moment.
But Elkin lived it when the pilot of the plane said, “Brace for impact,” before crash landing in the Hudson River.
Elkin ó and all 155 souls aboard flight 1549 ó survived the Miracle on the Hudson, as it’s called.
For Elkin, it was a miracle ó and a message.
Elkin said Sunday that all except nine or 10 passengers literally walked away physically unscathed.
In that one minute, Elkin’s life changed forever.
Elkin, 41, lives in Mooresville with his wife, Amy, and their two daughters, Katie, 13, and Lily, 7.
He’s the son-in-law of Bob and Fran Tannehill of Salisbury, and Fran Tannehill told the Rev. John Propst, St. John’s interim pastor, that Elkin might share his story with the congregation. Amy Elkin grew up in St. John’s.
Elkin has spoken twice at their church, St. Mark’s Lutheran in Mooresville.
The Rev. Rhodes Woolly, St. John’s senior pastor, sent Elkin the scripture for Sunday, and told him it was a perfect lead-in to his remarks.
Sunday’s scripture was from John 12:20-26, when visiting Greeks at a festival asked to see Jesus.
Before Elkin’s testimony, Propst said, “We are going to experience Jesus through Bill’s words.”
Elkin said that all of the news accounts about the crash were accurate ó there was no need for embellishment.
“It was certainly the most interesting flight I’ve ever been on,” Elkin said, as the congregation at the early service chuckled.
“It was a true test of humanity and goodwill,” he said. “There was no pushing and shoving, no personal greed.”
It was refreshing, he said, to be a part of such a triumphant story when there’s such bad news now about the economy and the war.
“It was the most terrible and traumatic thing I’ve ever been through,” Elkin said.
Then, understandably, he wondered about his life and what he was supposed to be doing with it.
Why am I here, he wondered. Am I using the gifts God has given me?
At St. Mark’s, Mooresville, he and his wife explored these questions and others through studies on “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
Over the years, he said, such studies never changed his life permanently.
“What would it really take for you to re-evaluate your life, make changes, to have a response to God’s calling, to serve and minister to others, and to make this a priority in your life, not just a good thought that gets placed near the bottom of the ever-growing to-do list?”
In the gospel, Elkin said, the Greeks requested to see Jesus.
“Did they need proof that he was real, to have faith?” Elkin said.
“Is that any different than today for many people? Is it more so today?”
The Bible is full of stories of people who did not listen to God, Elkin said. He mentioned Noah and Job.
His own wake-up call, he said, came on Jan. 15, when he boarded a plane, just like he’d done countless times over the past decade.
Elkin is a chief financial officer who travels frequently to England and Scotland. He’d been out of the country for nine days, and he was ready to get home to see his family.
Everything was normal for the first 90 seconds.
Then came the double bird strike.
The total engine failure.
The split-second decision by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III to land in the Hudson River.
Elkin was relatively calm, he said, until he heard Sullenberger say, “Brace for impact.”
“That is when I finally thought I was going to die,” Elkin said.
He was not afraid of the physical part of dying, he said, “because I was in God’s hands.”
Instead, he worried about the absence he would create in the lives of his wife and daughters.
“There were personal goals, dreams and aspirations that would never be met,” he said.
Even on a plane full of people, he said, he thought he was going to die alone.
“What I mean is without being around my family and saying goodbye to those I love.”It was terrifying.
“I could not believe it was happening and I felt woefully unprepared,” Elkin said.
In those 45 seconds, he said, he prayed and asked for help and forgiveness and the welfare of his family.
He was not thinking about his job.
He was not thinking about his possessions.
“As it turns out,” Elkin said. “None of us was alone.”
Much has been made of Sullenberger’s years of experience and training.
Elkin quoted 1 Peter 4:10. “God has given each of you some special abilities: be sure to use them to help each other, passing on to others God’s many kinds of blessings.”
God provided the pilot and the crew with all the skills they needed, Elkin said. “I believe that God has shown his amazing grace and love for his children, and it makes me realize how important, short and uncertain life is.”
Elkin’s life has been changed, he acknowledged. “How could it not?”
Now for him, the question is how God wants him to use the gift of surviving the crash.
“I believe it means I should re-evaluate my priorities and maybe my personal goals, and place God at the top of the list. I think then that everything else will fall into place as he wants it to.
“Remember that Martin Luther said there is no distinction between sacred and secular work. All honest vocations are sacred, as long as one goes about their duties faithfully.”
Elkin referred again to the gospel: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
“What parts of my life was Jesus calling for me to let die, so that I might live?” Elkin said. “What was I holding on to, what are we holding on to, rather than following Jesus? What is keeping all of us from living our lives more faithfully?”
In recent months, Elkin said he’d been struggling with anxiety and stress over things that are important.
“Letting go of some of this stress and anxiety will be difficult, particularly in the current times, but God has a plan for me. He has given me a second chance.”

The 75 people who attended the early service at St. John’s Sunday morning were “the largest crowd we ever had,” said Ronnie Smith, who served as an usher.
Two hundred and eighty heard Elkin’s testimony at the later service.
Smith found Elkin’s testimony “very moving. What an experience.”
Smith was an Air Force pilot and landed a few times “real hard,” but never crashed.
Hearing Elkin’s testimony was hard for his mother-in-law.
“He’s a wonderful father, husband and son-in-law,” she said.
After the plane crashed, Elkin called his wife from the ferry.
“We went over immediately to be with Amy,” Fran Tannehill said.
“Katie said, ‘I don’t know why you’re crying, Daddy’s OK.’ ”
On Sunday, daughter Lily stayed with her grandfather, Fran Tannehill said. She wasn’t feeling well, but she doesn’t like to hear about the plane crash, either.
Parker Hatchett, who served as assisting minister, could relate to Elkin’s experience.
He had a car accident on the ice on Inauguration Day, five days after the plane crash.
Elkin said that he thought it was about 10 minutes before the plane crashed, but it was really only 3 minutes into the flight.
Hatchett, too, said things seemed to happen in slow motion.
“God’s grace let me walk away,” he said.
In writing prayers for the morning services, he said, the intercession for God revealing his will was especially meaningful for him.