'Sully' rekindles memories for drag racer who was in the Hudson River

BY foxsports • October 1, 2016

Chris Rini had to see the movie, if only out of curiosity.

Rini, a Pro Nitrous racer in the Professional Drag Racers Association, a series which regularly races at NHRA facilities, went to see “Sully,” a film based on US Air Flight 1549 and its pilot Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger.

Rini didn't let the fact he knew how the movie ended spoil the experience, because he lived it. He was one of the 155 passengers who survived the January 2009 Miracle on the Hudson, described in the movie as a controlled water landing on the Hudson River.

The ironic part of the whole scenario for Rini is he'd been drag racing for nearly a decade, and experienced his first airplane crash before wrecking a race car. Adding to the already ironic scenario, Rini walked away from the plane crash without as much as a scratch while his first racing incident left him hospitalized.

The last 30 days have stoked the memories of both incidents, first with the movie and now his first race at Bradenton Motorsports Park this weekend since crashing his car there earlier this season.

"It doesn't bother me to think about either experience really," Rini said. "The racing accident, I really don't have any memory of the what happened. I don't have any reservations about racing there because I have categorized this as just another race.

"After the airplane deal, I didn't go back in the air for about another three weeks. I used to use the airplane flight to catch up on my sleep, and now I am getting back to doing that."

Rini's racing accident left him nursing seven broken ribs and a sore knee. The impact with the retaining wall knocked him unconscious.

Never has being in the wrong place at the wrong time been more evident than in Rini's case. He wasn't initially supposed to be on Flight 1549 but the concern for weather later in the evening inspired him to change his ticket to an earlier departure. The racing accident happened at a race he wasn't even scheduled to race, but a lack of testing inspired him to race Bradenton instead of the PDRA season opener in Tulsa, Ok.

Before Rini left New York, driving the team hauler to Bradenton, Fla., he decided to check out the movie. He enjoyed “Sully,” although he's played the experience over in his mind hundreds, if not thousands of times.

“I was five or six rows behind the engine when it exploded,” Rini recalled. “It didn’t just stop running... it went kaboom as it exploded and shook the whole airplane. It flamed up, and I was sitting in the middle seat. The guy on the window told me not to panic because the fire had gone out.”

Rini, who describes himself as a frequent flier, says he can still remember the body language of the flight attendants vividly.

“I saw just a little panic in the crew people, but they were quiet,” Rini said. “Inside, the plane got a little loud, and they [flight crew] told us to calm down and to tighten our belts as tight as possible. Then they told us the deal to put your head between your legs... the kiss your ass goodbye deal.”

Rini dismissed their actions as standard protocol and not much cause for concern.

“I really thought they were just overreacting,” Rini said. “I’ve been on so many planes, and you rarely listen to that safety information.”

When the plane's cabin filled with smoke, the situation got very real for Rini.

“I started to get concerned at that point,” Rini admitted. “We were dropping lower and lower in altitude. We were lower than some of the buildings and the George Washington Bridge looked so close that you could reach out and touch it.”

Being a race car driver, Rini could appreciate the job Sullenberger did.

“Sully had his hands full, and he did a phenomenal job,” Rini said. “But when he said for us to prepare for impact in a monotone, I said to myself, 'No way.’”

The tail of the plane, Rini explained, struck the water first, and the plane initially bounced before the nose dug in.

“I thought we were going to flip end over end,” Rini said. “I figured we were going to turn sideways, and then we might flip too. The pilot did an excellent job.”

Water covered Rini's shoes before he could undo his seat belt.

“There was no screaming or anything, and it stayed quiet until the plane started taking on water, which was almost instantly, and then that’s when the chaos started,” he said. “People were screaming to get out while others were climbing over the seats.”

Rini was seated in row 21B of the 32-row Airbus 320, and the rear took on the most water the quickest.

“We couldn’t get the back emergency doors open,” Rini said. “We had a pile of people trying to get out the back, and those by the door started screaming for us to go the other way.

“I thought to myself that I had survived the crash and now I was going to drown. The landing was ugly, but the getting out was worse.”

Rini followed a group out of the plane and onto the wing but realized this portion of the plane was also submerging at a rapid rate. Adding to the dismal situation, in the haste of evacuation, he’d forgotten to grab a life vest.

“There were already 30 people on the left side where I was and it was 10 inches underwater at that point,” Rini said. “I began wondering why I wanted to stand there when I was going to eventually end up treading water. The water was below freezing.

“Everyone had calmed down at that point. That’s when the reality of the cold set it. It was really freaking cold. I had already gotten wet sliding off the plane to get onto the raft. I was wet up to my hips.”

All in all, Rini gave the experience and the movie a hearty thumbs up.

"It was pretty good, had some Hollywood in there, mixed in with factual stuff," Rini said. "It is what it is; the movie rekindled some memories. I hadn't really thought about it a whole lot since it happened.

"I wanted to see the movie, even though I knew it would rekindle some memories. I guess that day and moment will always be a part of my life."


Bobby Bennett is the Publisher/Editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus

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