Local woman watched as plane went down in Hudson River

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
A Salisbury woman visiting New York witnessed the US Airways jetliner landing in the Hudson River on Thursday afternoon.
Belle Piper said she was standing outside the Riverside Drive apartment of her friend, Mary Cook, also of Salisbury, when she noticed the plane “hovering really, really low.”
“I said to the doorman, ‘There are no airports around here. Why is it flying this low?’ ” she related in a telephone interview from New York on Thursday night. “He was like, ‘I have no idea,’ and we both ran across the street.
“I said, ‘It’s going to hit the water,’ and we ran down to the pier. It’s weird to see a plane going down. It’s just bizarre. That’s all I can say to describe it.”
The daughter of Lee Piper of Salisbury, she said she didn’t actually see the jetliner go into the water because there was a bridge blocking her view. “But the pilot did a really, really good job,” she said. “It just slowly grazed, and it was very, very slow.
“When you see a plane coming down from that altitude, you usually think that it would nosedive into the water … but it was gracefully executed.”
By the time Piper got to the pier, she said helicopters were circling the plane while ferries and other rescue boats closed in. “I called Mary and said, ‘Please turn on the news to see what just happened,’ ” she said.
Everyone watching from the pier was scared and worried about the people on the jetliner. “One of the guys standing next to me said, ‘I think my cousin was supposed to take that flight,’ ” she said. “He like jetted down the street.”
Piper, who graduated from the University of Mississippi two years ago, said the situation was made worse by the frigid temperatures. “It was very, very cold,” she said. “I didn’t have any gloves on, and I felt like I got frostbite, so that water had to be freezing.”
Before the jetliner went down, Piper was getting ready to go to LaGuardia Airport to catch a later US Airways flight back to North Carolina. That’s where the downed plane took off from. She related her eyewitness account from the airport, where her flight, originally scheduled for a 7 p.m. departure, had been delayed until 9:30.
Ironically, Piper said she would have probably been on the ill-fated Airbus A320 flight to Charlotte if she hadn’t been on a job interview in Raleigh last Wednesday and flown to New York afterward from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “I usually fly into Charlotte,” she said, “and that would have been the flight I flew in on.”
Once friends told her what flight it was, Piper said it gave her a different perspective on the rescue efforts.
“I was in shock,” she said. “When you think that you were about to be on that flight … all I could think about was ‘Is everybody OK?’ ”
Afterward, Piper said she worried that Cook, the daughter of Elizabeth and Ed Cook of Salisbury, wouldn’t be able to drive her to the airport in time because of all the rescue vehicles in the area.
After word of the plane going down interrupted regularly scheduled television programming, Piper said she started getting calls from friends in North Carolina who were worried she might have been on that flight.
Birds getting sucked into the plane’s engines were blamed for bringing it down.
“I had people from there call and say, ‘I hope your plane doesn’t hit any geese,’ ” Piper said.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.