Posted by William Nunnelley on 2009-01-27

Andrew Gray had just settled into his seat and was thumbing through a copy of Economist magazine as U.S. Airways flight 1549 took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport Jan. 15, headed to Charlotte, N.C. Moments later, as the Airbus A320 climbed to about 3,000 feet, Gray heard a boom and immediately smelled something burning.

The plane had hit a flock of geese and lost power in both engines. As it descended, the pilot decided to try for a landing in the Hudson River.

"At first, I thought we had lost one engine and would return to the airport for another plane," said Gray, a 2003 Samford graduate who recently completed five and a half years in the U.S. Army Airborne. "Then I realized there was no engine sound at all and that we were gliding."

Gray was sitting in a window seat on the right side of the plane just behind the wing. His fiance, Stephanie King, was next to him. He saw the river coming up and heard the captain tell passengers to brace for impact.

"We started praying," said Gray. "I think we accepted that we could die, but as Christians we felt we were right with God. We held hands and kissed and told each other we loved each other."

The plane hit the water "with a sound like thunder," Gray said, and skidded across the surface. As it stopped, people opened the emergency exits on each side and started climbing out onto the wings. Gray was about two rows behind the exit.

"People were very orderly," he said. "There was no screaming or panic. As we got out on the wing, we were in water to our ankles. I was about the sixth person out on the right side, and we had to keep moving to let others out behind us. We were waist deep by the time we got to the point we could jump off and get to a ferry."

Gray and King jumped into the 35-degree water and "sort of thrashed our way a short distance to the ferry." He said "you couldn't really call it swimming, but the ferry was very close."

He managed to keep his cell phone dry, one of the few to do so, and later, after he had called his parents and Stephanie's family, he let other people use it to call their relatives. Miraculously, 155 people survived the crash and no one was killed.

"We went to the New York side of the Hudson and the Red Cross gave us dry clothes and blankets. They took survivors to three spots on both sides of the river and it took about three hours to process everyone. They had to know the seat you were sitting in to make sure everyone was accounted for.

"The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, was in our group, and he was being bombarded with people saying thank you, thank you. He was the hero. Then they took him away pretty quickly so he could talk to the authorities."

Gray said the airline got them a hotel room for an overnight stay. They weren't ready to fly again the next day, so the airline bought them a compartment on an Amtrak train for Fayetteville, N.C., their destination.

Gray and Stephanie are spending some time in Fayetteville with his parents. His father, Eastland Gray, is minister of pastoral care and seniors at Village Baptist Church in Fayetteville.

Gray went to high school in Monroe, La., and attended Samford with help of an Army ROTC scholarship. He majored in political science and was active in Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

"A guidance counselor tipped me off about Samford, and I enjoyed my experience there very much," he said.

After earning his degree and commission as an Army second lieutenant in May of 2003, he went to Fort Benning, Ga., to train as a paratrooper and Ranger. He was later attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, and served two tours in Afghanistan, one of 12 months and another of 15 months.

"I had some close calls in the service, but nothing quite this close," he said. "We're just thankful for being alive. God's hands must have been on those wings because they were both filled with people, and I never felt like I was losing my balance."

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 3rd nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.