Miracle on the Hudson

February 10, 2009

The January 15, 2009, belly-landing on the Hudson River by a U.S. Airways plane bound for Charlotte, N.C., resulted in all 155 people aboard being rescued. The incident was promptly dubbed miraculous. In a next-day’s online   NBC New York article, headed “Miracle on the Hudson,” writer Michael Clancy said the event “could only be called a miracle.”

However, with the primary meaning of “supernatural occurrence,” the word miracle once again proves overworked and misleading. It appeals to the emotions rather than reason.

With such remarkable outcomes as the plane’s safe landing on the Hudson, people often credit God—a collective Imaginary Friend—with having intervened. Even if all but one passenger had perished, that single instance still might be labeled “miraculous,” as if all the other people were somehow deserving of calamity.

The fact is, both good luck and bad occur. It is selective use of the evidence to count certain favorable occurrences as miraculous. Doing so stems from the same superstitious impulse and selectivity that leads some to claim there is a “curse” on the Hope diamond or the Kennedy family (see Joe Nickell,   Real-Life X-Files , 2001, pp. 60–69).

The best evidence is that the U.S. Airways plane was brought down by engine failure—reportedly due to colliding with a flock of birds. The “miracle” was simply the combined result of proximity to the water, the reflexes of an experienced pilot, and other factors, including the plane’s buoyancy and the ready availability of rescue boats.

While some passengers prayed, a couple of level-headed persons took charge and “started yelling for everyone to calm down,” reported Clancy. Obviously, rationality prevailed, and prayers had nothing to do with the wonderful outcome.



#1 Beacon Schuler (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 9:40am

I hate the way that when humanity does something magnificent it is God, but when he does something terrible it is Man. The pilot was incredibly level-headed (as the tapes demonstrate), he knew what he had to do, and he did it. He deserves the credit, along with the engineers and rescue workers.

#2 Henry (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:20am

It would seem that if God is truly in control of all things, the only factor that one could actually attribute to divine intervention is the placement of the birds.

#3 Patrick (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:23am

I watched Katie Couric’s interview with the crew on 60 minutes and she asked the pilot if he prayed before the crash.  He immediatly looked like he was going to say “no” but then hesitated (perhaps thinking that might not be a good idea)and then performed a nice save by saying that there were enough people in the back who were already praying so he didn’t need to.  Through out the interview he never once used the word miracle and didn’t mention god.  He spoke more like a trained professional but he seemed willing to allow that a certain amount of luck was involved also.

#4 Dave Huntsman (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 12:48pm

My one experience on this discusson: 

An evangelical minister friend (of 20 years), had sent me this picture showing god’s hands saving the plane’s people:
“This is WHAT REALLY HAPPENED on the Hudson”

#5 Matt (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 12:56pm

The day after the crash, I e-mailed my local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to chide them over that day’s headline: Miracle on the Hudson. I argued that the phrase implied divine intervention and, at the very least, should have been in quotes as it came from the mouth of Gov. Paterson. The paper’s reader representative wrote back acknowledging that they should have used quotes, but said that the word miracle “is often, and appropriately, used to describe things that are marvelous or remarkable—with no reference to religion or the hand of God.” He cited the “Miracle at Richfield” (a reference to the Cavs’ 1976 playoff series win over the Washington Bullets) as an example.

While technically he’s correct, I still think there’s a difference between using “miracle” to describe a sporting event (where hyperbole is bandied about in good fun) and an averted tragedy. Reporters should want to be clear about what they write, and there’s no doubt in my mind that many in the Cleveland area saw that day’s paper and thought, “Yep, the Lord’s done it again!” (Not bothering to ask themselves why he allowed the plane’s engines to fail in the first place. Did he put 155 people in the freezing drink to prove a point?)

I almost choked the night of the crash when the usually levelheaded Jim Lehrer admitted in discussion with a guest on The News Hour that “maybe it was a miracle.”

#6 Travis Morgan (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 7:54pm

Ah yes, it the the classic confirmation bias. How curious they do not give their god credit for the plane going down to begin with. Who put those birds there anyways? LOL.

Also, it is an insult and embarrassing to give credit to their imaginary friend for their survival and not to the well trained pilot.

#7 Mindseye on Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:10pm

I was in Viet Nam at a radar site I frequently was in the Operations area,  where the radar scopes were, listening to the traffic between our site and aircraft and the talk between aircraft.  Those guys were cool and professional, even in very difficult situations, including the loss of one of their own.

Nothing Captain Sullenberger did was a surprise to me.  He was a thorough professional.  He was also aided by the fact that his water landing was on the relatively smooth surface of a river and not open sea where the chances of the aircraft bouncing or nosediving or cartwheeling, thereby threatening the integrity of the airframe, would have been much greater.

If god is a well-trained pilot and crew and a strong airframe then let’s give him a hand.

#8 Anthony (Guest) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 7:37am

There is a wonderful independent film called “The Six O’clock News” that contains interviews with people that survived tragic events as part of a larger narrative. The people are convinced that God saved them but have no answer to why the other people were killed or why God chose to unleash the catastrophic event in the first place. The film maker finds this theme happening over and over again along with how the news industry describes these events. Highly recommended!

#9 Mindseye on Friday February 13, 2009 at 11:57am

In light of the crash in Buffalo what do god-fearing people have to say about the hand of God?  I venture to guess that it is: “It was part of God’s plan.”

#10 RJ Purvis on Tuesday February 17, 2009 at 1:35pm

I have my own blog on this topic - two people missed the downed airliner in Buffalo.  His words on CNN.com were, “God was looking over me” in answer to why he missed that flight. 

http://www.i-skeptic.com (Plane full of sinners post)

My commentary is no where near as eloquant as others like Joe Nickell but this has been happening a lot lately so I couldn’t help but blog about it.  :-=)

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