CVB: You survived the crash of US Airways flight 1549, which became the subject of the Tom Hanks movie, Sully. Tell us about your experience and why you wrote this book, Sink or Swim: Life After the Crash Landing in the Hudson.
Karin Rooney: I was praying about what to title a book about crashing on the Hudson. My favorite singer is Tiffany Lee from Plumb and I’ve been listening to her since I was 15. Her music was so important to me, especially when I was in high school. It is truly the soundtrack of my youth. One of her songs is titled ‘Sink or Swim’ and the lyrics were perfect. So that’s what I called the book.
CVB: So walk me through what exactly happened on the day of the crash.
Karin: Our friends were going to school in New York and we thought, what a better time to go and see the city than with friends who’ve lived there and know it. They could take us to all the fun, popular places, but also take us off the beaten path. We can eat some good food! So it was a big friend trip. My boyfriend at the time, Chris, and I met our friends there and we just did the New York thing. We were flying out of LaGuardia, heading to Charlotte for a layover back to Colorado, which was where we were living at the time. Chris and I weren’t married, we were dating and we were at a really pivotal place in our relationship, trying to decide whether we were going to get married or whether we were going to just kind of go our separate ways. We had been together for three years and I was definitely ready to marry him. I think he was ready too, but maybe had some reservations about this big life commitment. And so we just got on a bus and headed towards LaGuardia and got ready for our flight. There was nothing out of the ordinary. We had a gate change and a little delay, but at that time it wasn’t anything concerning to me. I wouldn’t say I’m a good flyer. I’ve always had a little nervousness around it.
CVB: I think most people do. Gravity has a hold on us, right?
Karin: Yes, exactly. And so you kind of feel a little nervous about it. I sat down in my seat and I started talking to the gentleman next to me. Then Chris and I started praying and just thanking God for our trip and for safe travels. Chris is a physics engineer, so I thought we would talk about how planes fly and that would take my mind off the nervousness that I was having. He began telling me how it all works as the plane began to to take off. Soon we ended that conversation and within 10 seconds we felt the birds come through. We felt the plane shake and within a few seconds there was smoke filling the cabin because one of the engines caught on fire. We knew something was wrong, but my understanding and the thought I had, which now I would only see as God just protecting my heart and my mind was that we made a quick turn back towards the airport. And I thought, well we just took off. We’re going to go right back. We’re going to land. No big deal. But I began to pray.
Prayer has always probably been one of those gifts that God has given me and I’ve grown in it. And that was just the first thing I did. It came very natural to me. The prayer I prayed was, “Lord, lay our plane down, gently. Give our pilot everything he needs to lay us down.” When the captain finally came on, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. Brace for impact.”
I really thought brace for impact meant landing on the tarmac – maybe a bit bumpy, so just be prepared. It’s going to be a little out of the ordinary. I did not think water. And Chris was sitting right next to me and he never once said, “Karin, we’re crashing in the water.” He probably just assumed I would know. But again, it’s just that God is faithful. If I had known that I don’t know what I would’ve thought.
CVB: Were you looking out the window?
Karin: No, my face was towards the floor and I was just praying. Chris was on the aisle, but he had looked out the window. We kissed each other and then we did the brace position. Then we landed and it wasn’t anything that made me think we were in a very serious situation. But right as I sat up, I saw water rushing through the plane.
CVB: That would be scary.
Karin: That is when things got really crazy for me. So Chris believed because we crashed in the water and then we survived, there was hope. For him it was a joy and he said, “We survived!” But I thought we were going back to the airport and then I find us in a plane filling with water.
CVB: And you were right in the middle of the Hudson River, so it wasn’t like you could easily swim to shore.
Karin: Exactly. And the water was only 30 degrees. So I really feared that I would die in that plane, or that I would be drowning. And so that moment in those seconds were so pivotal to the journey that God had ahead of me. We were rescued and the everybody was beautiful in the way they rescued us and how they took care of us.
CVB: So when you saw the movie, was it real to what you experienced or was it totally different?
Karin: It was real to the facts, but as you’re watching an actor play the role of someone who’s scared, you’ll never be able to get that moment back – all the feeling, and the fear, and the terror. But yes, the movie was done very well. I think it was done as well as you can depict those moments, especially as someone who’s lived through it. I thought they did a great job.
CVB: Well, you can’t go wrong when Tom Hanks is your pilot.
Karin: One of the things that really was the most difficult for me to watch wasn’t actually the movie, but a clip of from the trailer. One day I just randomly had the TV on and the movie clip came on. We had decided not to watch it for a while because I was pregnant and I just wanted to keep the stress low in my life. I decided let’s just wait a while. We were home one night and all of a sudden the trailer came on and I said, “Okay, like let’s watch this.” It was the first time I’d seen the trailer and all of a sudden Tom Hanks, playing Captain Sully, is walking down the middle of a plane looking down every aisle. And I just lost it because I was standing on the wing and I looked back into the plane and I saw Sully looking down every aisle.
CVB: Wow. There was a connection to where you had been.
Karin: It just overwhelmed me because it was so real. They really showed how strong and courageous of a captain he was. He was willing to go down with that plane. He was going to make sure we were all okay. Yeah, it was amazing.
CVB: I was on an airplane on September 11, 2001. Our flight was one of the last ones in the air. Even though I was not on a plane that was hijacked that day, I still experienced trauma. So when the movie Flight 93 came out, I couldn’t watch it for several years because of the trauma.
Karin: Chris is now my husband. We were together on that plane. He has had no trauma. And I really think he, God has done something in him to heal him in that way. Besides sometimes feeling uneasy about flying, he’s had nothing. Who knows what might happen down the road? But it’s now been more than 10 years and he’s coped with it and talked about it. Many people go through the same experiences, but how they handle them can be so different. Your trauma is different than someone else’s and how you handle it comes from your life and your experiences.
Thankfully for me, my degree’s in social work, but I had been working in foster care and adoption for awhile. During that time I learned so much about trauma in childhood, in foster care, and just kids who suffered abuse. I was able to transfer all that knowledge to myself. That again was God preparing me and giving me those tools.
CVB: So, what led you to write the book?
Karin: I think it was just a fun idea probably to start. I thought, wow, it’d be so great to write a book because people want to know what was it like to be a passenger sitting on that plane. Then I think that having faith in God was such an important piece – but also it was having faith in God and struggling. It was both. How do I as a Christian say that I believe in God and I trust Him, yet I see He walks me down paths that are difficult? He takes me on journeys that I never would’ve thought I’d walk. Yet I’ve never felt abandoned by him. I’ve never felt lost. I’ve never questioned whether He loves me or cares about me or he’s with me. What I questioned was how – how is He going to make this good? I felt so overcome by my anxiety and my fears and I felt bad a lot of times. I felt guilty. Because I was a Christian, I thought I should have hope and peace. I felt that somehow God was disappointed in me, mad at me, or frustrated with me.
Yet because of His kindness, God has been showing me that He is walking me down this path and He’s saying, “I’m with you.” God’s not like, hurry up. Fix those problems. Stop worrying. Stop having anxiety. Looking back, I still struggle with anxiety quite a bit. I still have moments of fear and I still don’t like flying. But if I profess the name of Jesus, and that I believe the Word of God to be true, and I believe who He is to be true, yet I never experienced the pain of the world, how can I really have a testimony that’s strong enough for non-believers?
For a long time I thought I should be exempt from these things because I’m a Christian. Now I think, wow, you know what, I am not exempt. And I have a stronger testimony for that. Nobody’s exempt.
CVB: So what do you hope people will take away from the book when they read it?
Karin: I think what the epilogue is about is just about deciding. You can’t decide what you face. You can’t decide what trauma comes. But you can make a decision today about what you believe about God. You can decide what you believe about who you are and what you will choose down the road. If and when this happens, I am standing on the faith that God is good, the attributes of God never change, and that I am confident of who I am in him. If you can decide those things today, when the trials and the pains of life come, you are going to be better equipped. Not that you can bypass the problems, but you’ve decided that when I faced trials, this is where is is where my foundation is.
Order your copy of Sink or Swim: Life After Crash Landing in the Hudson by Karin Rooney with Jessie Santala
Karin Rooney is the survivor of one of most historic plane crashes. She studied social work at Metropolitan State University in Colorado. She has spent her post education working in foster care and adoption, which created space for her to grow in her understanding and passion for trauma-healing. Karin and her husband, Chris, have three children, Elaina, Clark and Henry.
Dr. Craig von Buseck is Managing Editor of Inspiration.org.
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