Threatening skies didn't dampen the enthusiam of thousands of Danville area residents who turned out Saturday to welcome home Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, the "Hero of the Hudson."
Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River after it struck a flock of geese and lost both its engines, received a hero's welcome, complete with marching bands and proclamations.
Mayor Newell Arnerich presided over the event, which was held on the Town Green near Danville Library. "Clearly there are 155 reasons," a smiling Arnerich stated, "why our town is celebrating his courage under extreme circumstances."
Arnerich said he'd been contacted by people from all over the world offering their congratulations to Sullenberger. Included in those calls were Sir Richard Branson and Arnerich's own son, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. "My son said to tell you, Captain, that his unit would fly with you anywhere, anytime."
Arnerich presented Sullenberger with a key to the city, only the second time such an honor had been bestowed in the 150-year history of Danville.
U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., 11th) praised the courage and dedication of Sullenberger and his flight crew. He said that pilots and crew are trained to handle trouble, but there is always the question of what they will do when that day comes.
"On Jan. 15, trouble found Capt. Sullenberger. He had no more than two minutes to safely set that aircraft down. He did what he was trained to do," McNerney said.
McNerney said it was Sullenberger's calm and leadership which made that landing happen, and he applauded the captain's dedication to duty in staying with the aircraft until all passengers were safely off.
The huge crowd roared its approval when Sullenberger's wife Lorrie took the stage. Due to a request from the US Airline Pilots Association, the family is still restricted from speaking about the crash itself, but it didn't stop Lorrie Sullenberger from talking about the man flying the plane.
"I knew when I married Sully that he was the most honorable man I've ever met," she said through tears. She went on to say that she had no doubt of the outcome of the plane crash, because she knows what kind of pilot her husband is.
Sullenberger said she and her family had been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and praise they've received. "There's no words to express how grateful we are for all of you. We were so thrilled to come home to Danville. I have to say, we love Danville!"
Finally, Capt. Sullenberger himself took the podium, amid standing ovations and thunderous applause. After thanking everyone for coming he said simply, "Circumstance determined that it was this experienced crew that was scheduled to fly that particular plane on that particular day. But I know I can speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do."
After the ceremony was completed, the Sullenbergers, along with family and friends were treated to a reception inside the Danville Library.
Many of those who came couldn't see well due to the enormous crowds, estimated by police at 5,000, but it didn't alter their joy at being there. "What a great welcome," said resident Andrea Grout, "I think they did a great job. And they did it in such a short time."
Grout's daughter, Victoria, 6, said she most enjoyed Lorrie Sullenberger. "I thought it was cool when Mrs. Sullenberger talked. He did a great thing getting those people off the plane."
Monte Vista High School Junior Megan Gordon said knowing Sullenberger was from Danville made her proud, and seeing all the people who turned out for the celebration was a testament to the type of town Danville is. "It kind of makes me feel like I live in this small town," she said. "I don't know everyone in my class but look at this, how everyone is coming together to honor him."
Danville resident Peter Adams agreed. "It's not often that we get to honor a real hero, instead of a celebrity hero." He added, "It makes me nostalgic about the way small town America is. Everyone knows each other, and helps each other out."