Friday, January 16, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson – What’s in a Word?

I was on my way to a 5:30 PM meeting at 475 Riverside Drive, a.k.a. “The God Box” on New York’s upper west side. Just minutes from entering the subterranean world of the New York City subway system, I heard over my headphones that a commercial airline, having just taken off from LaGuardia, had come down in the Hudson. The earliest reports included accounts of passengers standing on the wings, so it was apparent not all passengers perished.

Radio and cell phone reception is nonexistent underground and it was not until an hour later, when I emerged from the subway, that I learned more about the breaking story. It was being reported that all the passengers and crew had been safely evacuated with only minor injuries and hypothermia.

At the God Box I talked with someone who worked on the 16th floor. She had not seen the plane as it descended but knew others who had. After seeing the plane flying low over the Hudson their first reaction was “Oh God no! Here we go again. What building is going to be hit this time?” 9-11 still haunts the minds and emotions of New Yorkers. When the plan passed and there was no explosion their fears subsided a bit.

Back home later in the evening I was watching television news coverage of the accident and heard Governor Patterson proclaim the event was “The miracle on the Hudson.” The phrase makes for nice PR, but was it true? Was it against the odds that all passengers and crew survived? Probably. Had the pilot demonstrated excellent skill, reflexes, and judgment in safely bringing the plane down in an urban area without any damage and death? Undoubtedly. Was it a miracle? If you define a miracle as anything contrary to the laws of nature, then this was no miracle.

Early news reports referred to the passengers as “victims”. As my wife opined, they were not “victims” but “survivors”, a nuanced difference she had learned to make from her Katrina recovery work.

Was this a plane crash? No. It might be called an emergency water landing.

Words have meanings and even in the aftermath of extraordinary events we ought to be careful about what words we use and how we use them to describe such events. Otherwise a sometimes apparently meaningless word will continue to seem meaningless.

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