Vallie Collins was accustomed to flying. Employed in the medical device and consumer products industry, she would frequently travel to and from her Tennessee home for business.
But one of those routine trips turned out to be life-changing. It was Jan. 15, 2009, when Collins boarded U.S. Airways Flight 1549 out of LaGuardia in New York City. Everything seemed normal that morning, even if she was traveling on a different airline than usual.
“I flew a lot for my job at the time but I never flew U.S. Airways, I always flew Delta. But the ticket was a lot less so I took it. It was really just happenstance,” she said.
Seated in the back of the plane, Collins was focused on making her connection in Charlotte and getting back to her three young children. It was during the ascent that she knew something was wrong.
“It was shortly after take-off that the birds hit the plane. I knew pretty much right away ... we weren’t climbing, there was no engine noise,” she recalled. “There was different levels of awareness.”
It was the beginning of an ordeal that would go down in aviation history as “the Miracle on the Hudson.” Unbeknownst to passengers at the time, a flock of Canadian geese had collided with the aircraft, disabling both engines.
Facing certain death for all on board, pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles were able to use their skills to glide the plane to a water landing in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan. Collins and the rest of those onboard escaped with minimal serious injuries.
Of course, during those first few moments, nothing was certain and the terror was very real.
“It was a very scary thing and the first thing I thought of were my children who were 4, 6 and 9 at the time, she said. I was thinking that these were my last moments and I remember being very sad thinking about everything I was going to miss in raising them.”
But one thing that Collins wasn’t worried about as she stared death in the face was where she would end up in the hereafter.
“I had accepted the Lord into my heart a long time ago so I wasn’t worried about going to Heaven, she said. I actually started thinking about my grandfather who had passed and I thought, ‘Daddy Smitty’ will be there waiting on me.”
But it wasn’t Collins time to meet him just yet, although the “landing” wasn’t the end of her worries.
“We landed in the river, which was pretty violent. It was rough but considering how bad it could have been ... it wasn’t that bad. There was a big hole in the galley of the plane when the (auxiliary power unit) fell off so the galley started filling with water,” she said.
“So then the challenge became how to get out of the plane. I was all the way in the back and the water was up to my shoulders.”
Carefully, Collins and the other passengers made it to the wing of the plane where they were rescued by first responders.
“The pilots were amazing and they did a great job landing, but the first responders were wonderful too,” she said.
Since the traumatic event, Collins has taken a good look at her life and what she’s learned from the experience. It’s led to another career of sorts — motivational speaking.
“I like to share five key life lessons I took away from it. They’re really simple things ... not rocket science,” she said with a laugh.
Collins will travel to the Golden Isles to share her story next month. She will be one of two speakers during FaithWorks' sixth annual celebration of service banquet, titled Journey. It will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.
Much like that fateful plane ride, finding her way to the area also included a bit of divine intervention.
“I met Melissa (Stroud of FaithWorks) at a mother-son retreat in California. Eight of us shared a cabin and somehow it came up. I don’t wear a badge about it but it is part of my story,” she said with a laugh.
“Melissa asked if I would come speak at the FaithWorks fundraiser and I said, ‘of course.’ It’s such a pretty place. I went to there for my 40th birthday with some girlfriends so I’m excited to be coming back.”
Stroud is equally excited.
“Vallie was one of the mom’s in my cabin. During the first night, we were asked to describe ourselves in one word. Vallie said her word was ‘perspective.’ And then she shared why that word best described her,” Stroud said.
“Nobody said a word, as Vallie told us about her journey — how she ended up on that particular flight, the crash and what happened after. It truly was one of the most interesting and inspiring stories I’ve ever heard.”