Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock The plane and passengers in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009
When Pam Seagle saw the man who saved her life almost 14 years ago at a reunion in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, she immediately walked over and gave him a big hug. "There's always this strong connection," says Seagle. "And he is a hugger. He embraces everyone. We have an incredible bond."
Her savior is former pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III. On Jan. 15, 2009, the man known as Captain "Sully" deftly, and calmly, landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River minutes after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport when the plane hit a flock of geese, disabling its two engines.
The incredible water landing saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew onboard and aptly became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson."
"I certainly remember it vividly," Sullenberger tells PEOPLE. "It was a traumatic experience certainly for everyone in the airplane and for the families to go through something like that."
Even after landing the plane in the chilly waters, Sullenberger maintained his calm, going through the aircraft twice to "make sure nobody was left behind," he says. "Had even one person not survived, I would've considered it a tragic failure [that] I would've felt deeply for the rest of my life."
Mario Tama/Getty The US Airways jet in the Hudson River
His split-second decisions that day thrust Sullenberger into the limelight — the story of Flight 1549 was told in the film Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks — and made him a reluctant hero and household name.
"I couldn't have done the whole thing by myself. It took many to save every life," he says, crediting co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, other crew members, first responders and New York Waterway, "whose ferry pulled us from the frigid Hudson," he adds.
Still, becoming a hero has "given us wonderful opportunities we wouldn't have had otherwise," says the soft-spoken, now retired pilot, who'll turn 72 later this month.
Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (L) and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles in the cockpit of a US Airways flight moments before take-off from LaGuardia Airport on Sullenberger's first official day back in the cockpit on October 1, 2009 in New York, New York. Sullenberger and Skiles will follow the same route they took on January 15, 2009
Sullenberger, who now lives in Northern California, is no longer a commercial pilot but is an author and continues to work as a public speaker and aviation expert focusing on air safety. He recently served as U.S. Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations.
The US Airways Airbus A320 Sullenberger landed on the Hudson is on display at the Charlotte museum, which is currently undergoing renovations that are partly funded by some Flight 1549 passengers.
Andrew Theodorakis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger
"We're like extended family," Sullenberger says of the passengers on his flight more than a decade ago. Many were on hand to celebrate at a reunion to mark the 14th anniversary of the Hudson River landing.
"We have become bonded," the former pilot adds. "And so I think over the passing years I feel evermore gratitude that we were able to achieve such a good outcome and save every life."
The feeling is mutual. "We're eternally grateful and indebted to him," says Seagle, 56, who works for Bank of America as its Global Women's Programs executive.
Seagle, who moved with her husband to the beach town of Wilmington, N.C., after the 2009 crash landing, has found great comfort from other passengers.
"We share a unique bond that no one else can really understand," she says. "Even though families and friends might try, no one else does."
Fellow passenger Barry Leonard, 69, who cracked his sternum on impact in the water landing, appreciates that bond so much he's organized annual reunions with passengers and first responders in New York City.
Gregory P. Mango Sully Sullenberger, left, and passenger Barry Leonard
"Usually there's a lot of tears around the table," Leonard, a semi-retired consultant from Charlotte, says. "It's also just to toast life; we all understand that we've gotten a bonus second life here for 14 years."
Leonard has since pursued a bucket list that includes reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, donating a library to a Masai tribe, and overcoming his great fear of skydiving with a jump from 12,000 feet a few years ago.
"It was harrowing," he says. "I definitely wouldn't do it again."
Sullenberger, whom he calls his "hero," has also become a friend.
Indigo Photography Capt. Sullenberger with Flight 1549 passengers and their families on January 12, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina
"I can't say enough great things about Captain Sullenberger, and what he's done to impact, not just the lives of the people on the plane, but also the children, the grandchildren, the extended family."
Joining Leonard at the Charlotte gathering Thursday is his son, daughter-in-law, and his 10-month-old grandson, whose name is Hudson.
"I'm looking forward to him meeting Sully," says Leonard. "And, I know, Sully's looking forward to meeting Hudson."
Sullenberger cherishes these connections, as well as the optimism the story has inspired over the years.
"This event happened during the 2008/2009 financial meltdown," he says. "At a time when we needed it, it gave us hope and reaffirmed our faith in humanity."