Dave Sanderson on how Flight 1549, The Miracle on the Hudson, changed his life
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
Dave Sanderson is an inspirational survivor, speaker, and author. His thoughts on leadership have made him an internationally sought-out speaker. When US Airways Flight 1549, or “The Miracle on the Hudson,” ditched into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, Dave Sanderson knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be. The last passenger off the back of the plane on that fateful day, he was largely responsible for the well-being and safety of others, risking his own life in frigid water to help other passengers off the plane. Despite the hazards to himself, Sanderson thought only of helping others and emerged from the wreckage with a mission: to encourage others to do the right thing. That experience profoundly changed his life and today he travels the globe sharing his inspirational and motivational leadership messages to help people make a difference in how they do business and live their lives.
Do you believe in fate?
Absolutely. When we got done early that day, I changed my flight to Flight 1549. I wasn’t supposed to be on that plane. That day changed my life in many ways.
Upon hearing Captain Sully’s words “brace for impact,” what went through your mind?
During the last minute before the crash, I had so much clarity. I saw everything with clarity and resolved that I was not coming back. I saw things I couldn’t imagine remembering. It’s all very surreal. I was also very scared, scared of being burned (my worst fear) or paralyzed from a broken back. When I heard a women say the Lord’s Prayer, I thought everyone was giving it up. I knew at that point, the crash was out of my hands. One final thought was- I hope my wife pays off the mortgage.
Were you a man of faith before the crash?
Absolutely, but my faith increased even more after the crash. I was asked to speak the following Sunday at my church, while still very physically bruised and emotional. Afterwards, an elderly lady came up to me whom I had never spoken with before and said, “You are physical evidence that there is a GOD.” I realized that day my story impacted people. Men were in tears. They heard the miracle and I was physical evidence of that miracle. This was undoubtedly a threshold moment for me. I saw a sign.
How did your wife and family learn about the crash?
ABC, CBS and FOX local stations were at our house before my wife even walked in the door. A picture was taken of me in the hospital and my name got out to the Charlotte news networks almost immediately. I think people would love to have her story, to hear her perspective.
How did it feel when you started to see media coverage of the crash?
The first picture I saw from inside the crash was on Good Morning America: a picture of me holding onto the plane, waist deep in the water. It felt surreal that I survived that crash. Everyday I remember something new from that day. I would love to see any footage from the New Jersey side, since that is where I went after I got onto the ferry. I do have some pictures and video from the Manhattan side. If anyone has pictures or video from the Jersey side, please contact me.
How did life resume after the crash?
One week after the crash, I was back at work with Oracle and flew to Michigan to meet with my client. Since it was snowing there and I hadn’t had a chance to get a new coat, the people from my client site bought me a coat. They took care of me, they took care of my family. I truly appreciated their care and compassion, as they recognized what I and my family had just been through. They are a family owned organization and it showed.
What lessons came out of that first meeting after the crash?
Relationships in sales are important. Genuine relationships. It was always important to me to know my clients outside of their title, to know them as friends. Business is a personal relationship. I had a personal relationship with my client who I was with the day of the plane crash. I would take my clients' perspectives to become their advocate. I also realized my own company didn’t care about me as much as my clients did. I have never received an invitation to speak for my former company.
Prior to the crash, did you feel like you were meant to be doing something greater?
I always knew I had a bigger mission. I just didn’t know what it was at the time. After the crash, I had total clarity. However, within a week I was back at Oracle because I had a family to support and Oracle expected business to resume.
How did you go from working at Oracle to speaking internationally?
After giving a talk at my church, I knew I was meant to speak publicly but I didn’t have anything in order. I needed to put thoughts into context and create a plan. I watched other speakers like Tony Robbins and saw how they moved the audience. During the first year, I took the Zig Ziglar approach: I gave almost 100 talks for free. I invested time into perfecting my presentations.
How did Tony Robbins become a friend of yours?
In 1994, while I was in sales with ADP, I attended a Tony Robbins seminar in San Diego. Even though I was the number one sales person at ADP that year, I offered to volunteer my time by helping his crew set up and do admin for the seminar. After putting out brochures on chairs at midnight one day, I was offered to sit at a door and guard it. After that event, I traveled with Tony and his team, guarding the door. After a while, I was promoted to guard a side of the stage for Tony and after a couple of years, I was asked to be assistant head of security, then security director. I traveled the world with him during my off-time, vacations, and weekends. I then had the opportunity to meet with other speakers Tony had on stage with him like Donald Trump and saw how leaders interacted with one another. I saw what it took to play at that level.
What advice did Tony give to you?
Before the crash, Tony always said: you need to do something yourself or you will always be constrained by someone else. I thought I had nothing to offer at the time. The pathway opened up after the crash. Most people don’t share the information they have. They don't execute what they know. People pay a lot of money to learn from people like Tony, and only a few actually do something with it.
Do you feel like the stage was intentionally being set for you?
Most certainly. My exposure to motivational speaking with Tony and the crash definitely paved the way. I was putting myself in the right peer groups and making investments in those peer groups. Tony Robbins always surrounded himself with other influential leaders and speakers. It is important to always have mentors in your life- everyone can add value to your life. They can teach you what they have learned in 50 years in much less time. You then take that knowledge and package it in the way you want.
Why do you think we should pay attention to moments in our lives?
All moments matter in your life! You don’t think moments matter but then all of a sudden you have a moment- a threshold moment. Ask yourself: why have I been brought here? There are reasons things happen in your life, reasons we are put in certain situations. Look for those moments to stop you and get your priorities straight. I knew I was missing a lot of family stuff while traveling with Oracle. I was modeling what my dad did but knew it had to change. I didn’t let the opportunity pass me by.
Why is the Red Cross so important to you?
The first person I saw when I got to dry land was a volunteer with a blanket from the Red Cross. I am so grateful to them. Since the crash, I have helped raise over $8 million for the Red Cross, speaking at over 150 events for them. I don’t take any money from the Red Cross or churches when speaking for those organizations. I donate my time. You learn after you go through something like this that life is about gratitude and contribution.
My relationship with the Red Cross began when I was eight years old, when they taught me to swim. I was thankful for that ability the day the plane went down. The water in the Hudson was 36 degrees. I couldn’t feel anything when I got out of the water. I can’t explain how cold I got- I could barely talk. That blanket represents the importance of being ready when a crisis happens.
Watch Dave tell his story here and express his gratitude to the Red Cross.
You released your book “Moments Matter” on January 19th. Tell us about the book:
I shared my story in the book “Brace for Impact” but still had a greater story to tell, lessons to share. With the help of Cindy Wrightson, the book came to life. “Moments Matter” provides tips on leadership, communicating effectively, how to utilize your own life experiences, the importance of responsiveness, and the skills to give results in days, not years.
Tell us about your writing process:
For “Moments Matter,” I started putting the book together in September of 2014 and we completed it by January 19, 2016. If you make a must, things happen! I focused on writing my blog to keep thoughts flowing. Cindy Wrightson helped me pull content together from my audio, video, and written sources, making sure everything was in place, in the right order. When the movie “Sully” was announced, we set the book deadline and made it happen.
Any plans for additional books?
Yes. I definitely have another book to pull together from the many interviews that I have done, as well as insights from the blogs I write. Each time I interview or write, I create and share new content, which can be formatted into another book.
Where can we purchase “Moments Matter” and read your "Moments Matter" blog?
The book can be purchased here. A portion of the net proceeds will be donated to the Red Cross. To read my "Moments Matter" blog, please visit my website.
How many speaking engagements do you average a year?
I average over 100 talks a year. I share The 12 Pillars of Resourcefulness and Create your own Flight Plan, precepts that enabled me to become a top producer in some of the largest sales organizations in the world and ultimately enabled me to survive the plane crash.
Do you stay in touch with Captain Sully?
Yes, we share the same birthday, and I am honored to also share the stage with Captain Sully on some upcoming speaking engagements.
Tell us about the movie “Sully” that is in the works:
The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, comes out Sept 9th with Tom Hanks playing Captain Sully. I’m excited to see how they put Captain Sully’s life on screen and the way they will depict the "Miracle on the Hudson."
What is a message you convey to younger people?
I talk about the power of a team: 155 people were on that plane who never knew one another but came together and helped one another in about six minutes. We quickly got into the mindset of teamwork and leadership. No one could do it alone. The person with the most certainty becomes the leader. It showed up on the plane that day. A few people step up and do the right thing. Others are able to make important decisions and execute them, like Captain Sully. If you make investments in the bank, you will be able to withdraw the knowledge when you need it most.
Kids are brought up with few challenges. They need to listen to their parents and understand how they got to where they are. You have to buy your time. Younger people want quick ways to make money. I worked five or six jobs to get to where I am. I worked hard. Experiences lead to more experiences and create new pathways.
Dave Sanderson resides in Charlotte with his wife and has four children. To learn more about Dave, visit davesandersonspeaks.com.
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