Passengers on the plane that ditched into the Hudson River in January have told a federal safety panel that it was a flight attendant -- not a panicked passenger -- who opened a rear door on the aircraft, sending water rushing into the cabin.
The National Transportation Safety Board has scheduled three days of hearings next week on safety issues arising from the forced landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson between New York and New Jersey on Jan. 15. The first two witnesses are the flight's captain, Chesley Sullenberger, and passenger Billy Campbell, who was seated in the second-to-last row of the Airbus A320.
Board member Robert Sumwalt, who will chair the hearing, said that Campbell has told NTSB investigators that it was flight attendant Doreen Welsh who cracked open the door, not a passenger.
Following the ditching, Welsh said in media interviews and testimony before Congress that a passenger pushed past her to open the door.
"That's what we want to straighten out. We want to get his testimony on that, was it a passenger or a flight attendant?'' Sumwalt said in an interview.
Several passengers interviewed by investigators have given similar accounts, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.
In a Feb. 9 account to NBC News, Welsh described what happened in the back of the plane this way:
"Well, I got out of my jump seat and went back and looked out the porthole and saw water. And, wow, then I turned around to start guiding the people away, just then a passenger knocked me over and went and just wildly, I mean, she was just frantic and said, 'Open the door, open the door,' and she cracked the door. I had to take her and get her away, but she had put it up just enough that it broke the seal and that water came gushing in.''
A spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants said Welsh was unavailable for comment.
"While there may be conflicting reports regarding the exact actions of what happened immediately after crashing, the bottom line is that everyone was evacuated,'' Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the union, said in a statement.
Flight 1549 collided with a flock of Canada geese minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York, losing thrust in both engines. Sullenberger has said he decided to glide the plane into the Hudson rather than risk crashing in a densely populated area. All 155 aboard survived.
A rupture in the plane's fuselage sent water streaming into the cabin. The opening of one of two rear doors compounded the problem. Afterward, passengers in the rear of the plane described a harrowing scene in which people struggled to move forward to safety as the water rose. Some passengers crawled over the tops of seats.