New film ‘Sully’ brings back memories for man on famed flight

09/09/2016 6:00 AM |

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Bill Zuhoksi thought his life would change forever after his near-death experience in January 2009.

After all, the Mattituck resident was among the 155 survivors of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, better known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

“At the time, you definitely think you’re going to live every day to the fullest,” Mr. Zuhoski said. “But you know, you still gotta go to work and do everything else. Nothing really changed, to be honest.”

While Mr. Zuhoski, now 31, said the first year after the headline-making incident was filled with media interviews and attention from locals, he hadn’t thought much about the flight in the time since. That changed recently with this week’s scheduled release of “Sully,” a film about the flight and its hero pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Mr. Zuhoski, who grew up in Cutchogue, said he was contacted about the movie starring Tom Hanks nearly a year ago and was invited, along with other Flight 1549 passengers, to Charlotte, N.C., to meet the film’s legendary director, Clint Eastwood. The meeting was filmed and will be included in the closing credits, but Mr. Zuhoski decided not to attend. He’ll also skip out on a pair of premieres he was invited to — one in Charlotte, the flight’s scheduled first stop, and the other in New York City, where it departed.

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Instead, Mr. Zuhoski and his wife plan to rent out a theater at Mattituck Cinemas so they can watch the movie surrounded by close friends and family.

“I’m excited to see it,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll get some feelings during it. But I’ve talked about it so many times — it’s been seven years. It’s not going to bother me.”

Mr. Zuhoski said many people who felt uncomfortable talking to him about the flight soon after the incident took place have begun asking him about the experience. In doing so, the story, which once felt emotionally draining to share, now feels like any other Mr. Zuhoski has told dozens of times.

On Jan. 15, 2009, Mr. Zuhoski was 23 years old and he and his high school sweetheart had just broken up. He was flying from Laguardia Airport to Charlotte on his way to visit a friend in South Carolina — just to get away for a while.

Just minutes after the plane took off, Mr. Zuhoski heard the captain tell passengers to brace for impact.

“It was kind of surreal going down,” he said. “You kind of just think that that’s it.”

He said he tucked his head down and said a little prayer and a goodbye.

But the plane didn’t crash. Instead, Captain Sullenberger, or “Sully,” as he’d later be known across the world, famously performed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River between New York City and Weehawken, N.J.

Although everyone on board survived, Mr. Zuhoski can remember some harrowing moments following the landing. For instance, as passengers raced to the back of the plane to escape, that portion of the aircraft began filling with water.

“I just remember lifting my leg out of the water and how heavy it was with soaking wet clothes on,” Mr. Zuhoski said.

He reached for his cellphone to call his former girlfriend, but he was waist-deep in water and the device was broken from water damage.

As passengers began trying to push their way through the crowd, Mr. Zuhoski remembers standing on a seat and yelling for everyone to remain calm. He would soon be neck-deep in ice-cold water.

“The scariest part for me was looking up and the roof of the plane is just a foot away,” he said. “People are pushing me from behind and from the back and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to drown here in the back of the plane with nowhere to go.’ ”

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Mr. Zuhoski then remembers removing his clothing, which was weighing him down. If he did manage to get off the plane, he thought, being lighter would make it easier to swim.

He eventually exited via one of the plane’s wings, clothes in hand.

Although Mr. Zuhoski says his life hasn’t changed much in the years since, that isn’t entirely true. Remember the ex-girlfriend he tried to call from the plane? He married her in 2015.

Stephanie Zuhoski remembers watching the incident unfold on television while she was home from college on winter break. Soon after, she received a phone call from a family friend telling her Mr. Zuhoski was on the plane.

“I dropped the phone and called my mom and was just hysterical right away,” she recalled.

While another three years would pass before the couple officially reunited, Stephanie was often at Mr. Zuhoski’s side in the days following the flight.

Ms. Zuhoski said her husband isn’t the type to eat up media attention. The incident made him realize not to take anything for granted, she said, but she agreed it hasn’t changed him much. She said he’s still the “kindest, most humble and greatest person” she knows.

While Mr. Zuhoski initially thought he’d never fly again, that’s no longer the case. In November 2009, he and other survivors flew to Chicago for a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to surprise Mr. Sullenberger, who was appearing as a guest.

“You can’t really turn down ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ ” he joked, noting that he did turn down a taping of “Ellen” and an appearance on a London talk show.

Today, Mr. Zuhoski flies as much as the average person.

“Everybody jokes that they want to be on the flight that I’m on because there’s no way that’s going down again,” he said. “Like flight insurance.”

Mr. Zuhoski said he connects with other passengers from Flight 1549 on social media but doesn’t see them often, since most live in North Carolina. He was in attendance on the first anniversary of the flight, however, when the group met in New York City and took a boat ride to the site of the water landing.

The occasion marked one of the few times he was able to talk to Captain Sullenberger.

“I honestly don’t even remember what I said to him the first time we met after the incident,” Mr. Zuhoski said, adding that he invited the captain to his wedding, but he was unable to attend. “It’s almost impossible to try and thank someone for saving your life.”

Photo caption: Bill and Stephanie Zuhoski at their home in Mattituck. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

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