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Sully Speaks!

And other moments from Danville’s celebration of its hometown hero.

 Photography by Alisha Petro

Aside from our new president, Barack Obama, there is perhaps no other human in America whose presence has been in so much in demand these past few weeks as US Airways Pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger.

If you haven’t already heard about Sully’s amazing feat because you’ve been trekking in the Amazon, he’s the pilot of Flight 1549 who helped saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew by landing his distressed jet in New York’s Hudson River on January 15. The so-called Hero of the Hudson hails from Danville, and he and his wife, Lorrie, appeared Saturday at a special ceremony on Danville’s town green to honor his accomplishments.

When Sully finally took the stage, a trim man wearing a suit and a mustache and smiling shyly, he didn’t have a lot to say to the thousands gathered on this semi-rainy afternoon. His reticence, in part, comes from the fact that his emergency water landing—a true miracle, as proclaimed by some—is still under federal investigation. But his reticence also comes from what friends and community members say is his natural reserve and modesty. 

SULLY! SULLY! SULLY!

This was the chorus that rose as he took to the podium to make his statement, which lasted no longer than 30 seconds. He had already received various honors, including the key to the city, a medal of valor from the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District for “saving 155 lives, and an honorary appointment as a Town of Danville police officer. By the way, he’s the first citizen in the history of Danville to receive this honorary cop designation.

In his man-of-few words way, Sullenberger expressed gratitude for the love and outpouring of support that he, Lorrie, and his two teenage daughters have received from the community.

"It was circumstances that put this experienced crew (in charge) of that plane on that particular day," Sullenberger finally said. “We were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do."


Just a man doing his job. A man, who, by all accounts, takes pride in doing well at his job and therefore excels at it. Competence: pure and simple. Competence, good training, and sticking to established procedures—these are the elements of success that Sully was emphasizing, not the sort of divine superpowers some might try to attribute to him with their “hero” accolades.

His statement was short and simple but resonated mightily among those gathered in front of Danville’s library.

I have to confess that I, of all people, was moved. 

As it happens, I was rather wary about attending. I hate crowds, and, as a former daily newspaper reporter, I’m rather cynical about celebratory events that attract the big media circus. And Sully’s story has definitely attracted the circus, so much so that NBC News is feeling rather bruised from losing what it considered to an exclusive commitment from Sully to appear on the Today show with Matt Lauer. It has been confirmed that CBS news anchor Katie Couric, and Lauer’s former Today show partner, has scored what will be the first interview with Sullenberger and his crew for a segment of 60 Minutes on February 8.

Yes, the circus was very much present in Danville on Saturday, with satellite trucks from various local and cable news outlets lining up along Front Street. This includes the Fox News reporter doing his pre-ceremony “stand-up” in front the stage that Sully would soon share with other dignitaries, including Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich, San Ramon Mayor H. Abram Wilson, new state Assembly member Joan Buchanan, and U.S. Congressman Jerry McNerney, as well as members of the Danville city council, Danville police, and San Ramon Valley fire district..

The ceremony was scheduled to start a 1 p.m., but people were slowly starting to fill the green just after noon. “There’s more media here than people,” one woman said into her cell phone, just after noon. But that balance of media to regular folks would shift in the next half hour, as regular folks filled the green and spread up and down Front Street.  However, the arrival of more people didn’t feel like a crush, just a gentle, polite influx of people, out to share in a simple moment of community togetherness.


Among those arrivals were Danville old-timers, who marveled that someone with so much international fame and impact could have emerged from their town.  Many in the crowd also included parents who had brought their kids of all ages to see a “real” hero.

The open, honest, and adoring spirit among these parents and their kids quickly melted the wary cynic in me and helped me to overcome my aversion to big crowds and the media circus. The comments these people made came from the heart, not from the cliches’ that often emerge from in big news events like this.

How could I be feeling in anything but moved and humbled after talking to Zach Hanze, 13?

This Danville boy expressed pure delight at being here: “He’s a good pilot,” Zach said of Sullenberger. “It’s amazing he saved all these people.”

Zach’s parents felt that it was very important bring Zach and his brothers to this event.

“This was a great opportunity to show the kids an example of someone who is a hero,” says dad Carlos Hanze. “He’s just a humble person doing his job, who is good at his job, who works hard at being the best he can be. He has become an expert at what he does, never imaging he’d be put in this situation. Some of us one day might be called upon to do the right thing.

Zach’s mother, Kathy Hanze, added: “[Sullenberger’s] not here for the accolades or the attention. He’s such a positive role model, and he’s here right in our own town.  They said he went up and down the aisles twice [after landing the airplane on the river] to make sure everyone was out safely. He’s not just doing his job. He’s doing it with heart.”

I talked to kids and their parents who had made homemade signs to raise high for Sully to see, like Ryan Greenberg, 6. The Baldwin Elementary School first grader sat on his father’s shoulders, holding his sign above the growing crowd, which showed his hand-drawn image of a plane landing on water and the proclamation: “Excellent Landing!”

Then there was the banner created by the Helfer family which proclaimed: “You saved our friend, Jay. Thanks, Sully.”


David and Heather Helfer, and their twin 4-year-old daughters, Mara and Reagan, and son, Jeffrey (dressed in a firefighter’s coat), unfurled the banner as their way of showing gratitude. David and Heather explained that a family friend, Jay McDonald, who used to live in the Danville area but now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, was aboard Sully’s plane when it made its emergency landing. They learned about their friend’s miraculous survival, thanks to Capt. Sullenberger, via an interview this friend gave to CNN. This friend, Jay, has several small children, Heather said. “It’s an incredible story,” she added.

To view more photos from this event, click here »

Posted at 01:10 AM - Jan 25, 2009 in Best Of Editor Picks | Permalink

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