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Drag Racer Had Inside View Of Hudson River Plane Crash

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 22 2009
Chris Rini survived the Hudson River plane crash to race another day.  

Chris Rini survived the Hudson River plane crash to race another day.

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Commerce, Ga. – Chris Rini, a Top Sportsman racer from Carmel, N.Y., was one of the favorites in his division in the Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway last weekend. But midway through a qualifying run on Friday, the engine in his Dodge Stratus detonated.With oil streaming from his car, Rini calmly deployed his parachutes, steered the car through the oil slick it was creating and safely guided it to the end of the track.

For Rini, it was just another day at the drag races, a minor setback compared to his experiences of Jan. 15 of this year. The personable racer was one of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 that crash landed into the icy Hudson River just minutes after departing from LaGuardia Airport.

As Rini’s crew looked over his disabled racer, he leaned against a transporter, wearing his firesuit pants and a racing t-shirt, and recounted once again the events of that fateful day.

Rini, 37, operates a garage and 24-hour towing service in his hometown and races on weekends at tracks across the country. He booked the fateful flight to Charlotte to meet with his new engine builder, Charlie Buck in King, N.C.

The flight started out like others he’s taken over the years. He bought his ticket the day before on Expedia and worked up until the last minute at his shop, Chris’ Automotive Center.

“I worked three 16-hour days prior to that flight so I could go away on a four-day weekend,” he said. “I got to work that morning early and got everybody working. About noon I peeled out of there, went home and put on some clothes.

“I was running late as normal. I ran through LaGuardia like the place was on fire.”

That turned out to be unnecessary. The flight was delayed. But soon he was boarding. He wore jeans and a racing jacket. Most of the other men on the early-afternoon flight had on business suits. Women generally had on high heels.

 “The plane was packed as normal,” he said.

 Soon Rini settled into his typical route – getting ready to take a nap in his seat near the back.

 “I was in middle seat,” he said. 0I told guy next to me, ‘I’m really tired. If I fall asleep and end up on your shoulder just knock me off.’ I fell asleep before the thing even disconnected from the gate.”

Suddenly Rini was jolted away by a loud boom. “I thought we hit something on the runway,” he said.

But that wasn’t the case at all.

“I looked out the window and saw nothing but blue sky.”

Sensing his panic, the golfer in the next seat told him an engine had quit. Rini glanced out the window and saw flames coming from the engine.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh shoot. I’m going to be late, going to miss dinner with my engine-builder. Now I’ve got to go back to the airport and change planes. This is going to mess up my night.’”

What Rini didn’t know at that point was that both engines had quit, choked by a flight of Canada geese.

From his days behind the wheel of his tow trucks, he knew well the landscape he was seeing below. But he was mostly worried about the hassle of changing planes back at the airport.

The flight attendants started stirring, telling passengers to keep their seat belts on and keep them tight. Soon Rini realized that the plane was approaching the George Washington Bridge, a massive structure over the Hudson River.

“I told the guy next to me that we were getting low,” he said. “I couldn’t believe a commercial airliner was actually going to land in the water. I was in disbelief  – there’s no way this is going to happen.”

Then a flight attendant confirmed what he already knew, telling  passengers to put their heads between their knees and their arms around their knees and prepare for impact.

Rini had other ideas.

“I didn’t really go for that,” he said. “I’m the kind of person who wants to see where I’m going – good, bad or indifferent.”

What he saw was the George Washington Bridge, incredibly close.

“I could see in the cars,” he said. “I’m sure those people were a little nervous too.”

Then came the words from Capt. Chesley Sullenberger that have become synonymous with the crash.

“Probably 20 second before we hit the water, Captain Sully comes on and in this dead, monotone voice says, ‘Brace for impact.’

“At that point, I’m thinking, ‘We’re really going to hit. This is going to hurt.’

“I never thought I was going to die.”

The plane hit the water, bounced once, then turned sideways and came to a stop.

 “When it finally came to a stop, everybody checked their fingers, checked their toes, to see that you’re still alive.

“For a couple of seconds it was dead silence, as silent as you can imagine.”

Then the panic started, the pushing and shoving. Almost immediately, there was water on the floor. Back where Rini was sitting it was up to his knees before he could get into the aisle.

First he tried to go to a rear exit, but that door was already under water. Then he headed for a wing exit, but the aisles were packed. He’d already decided he’d swim to shore if necessary, and he figured he was a good enough swimmer to make it. But the crowds in the aisles gave him his biggest scare.

“I started to panic about not getting out,” he said.

Eventually he got out on the left wing, but quickly saw that wasn’t the best place to be for long.

“It was 10 inches under water. People were falling off the wing and others were helping them up.”

Rini looked to both shores to decide which way to swim, then came up with a better idea. He went back into the plane and made his way to a front door where a life raft was deployed.

Soon he was safe. The trip to Charlotte was the last thing on his mind at that point.

“I didn’t end up going to North Carolina that weekend,” he said “I figured it just wasn’t in the cards.”

He’s flown often since, but it’s never been the same. His first time back in the air was a miserable trip, a snow-delayed flight out of Charlotte that turned a two-hour flight into an all-day affair.

He no longer uses plane trips to catch up on his sleep. Take-offs and landings are nerve-wracking even for a guy accustomed to driving a dragster at 200 miles per hour.

“Now I’m on pins and needles,” he said.

The only lasting impact the crash has had on him is that he’s been more aware of keeping his affairs in order.

“I’m more concerned with is tightening up a lot of loose ends,” he said. “You don’t realize how many things revolve around you until you think about what would happen if you’re not involved in life.”

And he disputes his well-meaning friends who call him lucky.

“If I had been lucky, I would have landed in Charlotte, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

He’s also come up with a pretty good comparison for his experience that even a non-flier could understand.

“To get the same feeling, get out on the highway by yourself. Get your car up to about 85 miles per hour, set the cruise control and jump in the back seat,” he said. “I was just along for the ride. Fortunately I had a pilot who knew how to do his job and do it with pride.

“It’s his hobby and his life, and he was better prepared to handle that situation than most. Unfortunately that’s usually not the guy you get.

“That was the difference.”

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 22 2009
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