Passengers struggle with why their lives were spared

WEDDINGTON, N.C. — Not overly religious. That’s how Don Norton describes himself. Raised Catholic, converted to Judaism when he got married, rarely goes to temple.

But on Jan. 15, bracing himself in seat 11F as US Airways Flight 1549 headed for a crash landing in the Hudson River, he said a prayer. He repeated it, over and over, in his head.

“Please, God, don’t let me die. Please, God, don’t let me die . . .”

Norton survived, as did the other 154 passengers and crew members. Now, like the rest of them, this 35-year-old husband and father from Matthews, N.C., is trying to make sense of what happened and what role God and faith may have played in the happy ending.

Some of the survivors, such as Lori Lightner, who was able to celebrate her 36th birthday last week, say it was a miracle.

David Sanderson, who works for Oracle and flies 100,000 miles a year on business, says he felt a guardian angel — his late mother — had a role in protecting him.

Clay Presley, a Catholic who felt at peace during the most terrifying moments, says it was a reminder to pay even more attention to what’s truly important: family and always doing the right thing.

And Norton?

He’s says he’s still struggling to figure out why he’s not dead.

Was it a warning to change his life? Or a case of a master pilot using his God-given talents to save them all?

Norton knows one thing: He feels that God wants him to talk about it with others, to tell them what a precious thing life is.

So on Sunday, Jan. 18, Norton accepted a pastor’s invitation to appear with fellow passenger Sanderson at Southbrook Community Church in Weddington, N.C. Just to talk with the Rev. Rob Singleton, while his congregation of 2,000 evangelical Christians looked on.

“I believe in God. I feel like I owe him, almost,” Norton, a vice president with Lending Tree who was on only his second business trip in eight years, said afterward.

“That’s one of the reasons I think I’m here: God wants me to tell people about this and show appreciation. Because this is going to give me appreciation for life like I’ve never had before.”

Sanderson, who sat beside Norton on the church stage, wasn’t initially scheduled to be on Flight 1549. But when his New York meeting ended early, he managed to get on the earlier flight — the one ditched in the Hudson River.

A devout United Methodist, Sanderson, 47, of Charlotte, said his own prayer from seat 15A, asking Jesus to forgive his sins and give the pilot strength.

“God put that pilot on that plane for a reason,” Sanderson said, breaking down for the first time since he saw his children waiting for him at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. “And I think he put me on that plane for growth. It was my time to stretch.”

His testimony brought applause, even an “Amen!”

Lightner and Presley, reached at their homes, also saw God’s hand in their survival — and in their lives.

Lightner, a merchandise manager with Belk and a resident of Tega Cay, S.C., says she and husband Erik have been meditating anew about adoption plans.

“Maybe there’s a child out there, waiting for us to take care of,” she says.

Presley, 54, president of Carolina Pad, a fashion stationary company, says his memories of the crash include hearing passengers quietly praying, some reciting the Lord’s Prayer, others asking for God’s help.

As for Presley, who text-messaged an “I love you” to his wife, the thought of possibly dying brought calm, not terror.

“I knew I was in God’s hands,” he said. “I wasn’t in control. I was at peace.”