Lori’s story

Written by Jim Prive, Red Cross Volunteerimage

Lori Lightner’s trip in January was typical. She and five others from the department store chain flew from Charlotte to New York on business and prepared for the return flight home on Jan. 15. Lori always had reservations about flying, but this day was especially worrisome as the weather was cold and snowy up until just before US Airways Flight 1549 departed.

As a tall woman, Lori always flew in the emergency exit seat on the plane, as it offered extra leg room. When the plane took off that Thursday morning, everything seemed normal. Then, according to reports, a few minutes into the air, the plane flew into a flock of geese, disabling both engines.

Lori recalled that time seemed to stand still until a voice came over the intercom and said, “Brace for impact.”

She said she figured, “This is it,” and began to pray, thinking about how devastating her death would be to her husband, Erik, and her family in California. But Lori said when the plane struck the Hudson River, it wasn’t as bad as she expected. She said it took a minute for passengers to realize they were OK and that they needed to exit the plane. 

Due to Lori’s seat, she was one of the first ones out of the plane and into the icy January waters of the Hudson River. Though she is a strong swimmer, the temperature quickly sapped her strength. When the rescue boats arrived, she was barely able to get herself out of the water and onto the boat. 

Within 30 minutes of splashdown, the Red Cross arrived at the restaurant where Lori and fellow passengers were taken. As one can imagine, people were scared and confused to the point where communicating their statuses with loved ones was difficult.  Therefore, Red Cross volunteers communicated on behalf of the passengers. Lori fondly recalls being assisted by a Red Cross volunteer named Gina, who was speaking with family members via cell phones one by one. Lori recalled Gina saying, “After what you all have been through, we don’t expect you to be able to think. We’re here to help you with that!”

Upon arriving at the restaurant, passengers were offered food and coffee. Lori had no desire for food – she only wanted to get warm, and she didn’t drink coffee. So Gina offered her tea. Unfortunately, Lori – and most of the other passengers – were shivering so badly due to the cold and rattled nerves that they could not hold onto the cups. Red Cross volunteers quickly produced straws.

Passengers were also in need of dry socks. Gina phoned her husband, who was on his way to assist in the Red Cross response, and he picked up athletic socks for the passengers. “You can’t believe how important those socks, a paper gown and a blanket were to me,” Lori said.

Gina and other Red Cross volunteers circulated the crowd to see if anyone had lost any needed medication. Lori said it dawned on her that she had lost her asthma inhaler, which was in her purse on the sinking plane. Again, Gina sprang into action. She contacted a pharmacy, explained the situation and made arrangements for the Red Cross to pay for and pick up the prescription. A short time later, Lori had her inhaler in hand.

The last item Gina gave Lori was a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll.  Lori admits that it was at least 30 years since she slept with a stuffed animal, but it was greatly appreciated that day.

“The Red Cross – and especially Gina – were quickly there and stayed with the passengers until every last one was safely on their way,” Lori said.

Post Splashdown

Lori said her experience caused her to reflect on what is really important in life. After taking time to settle down emotionally, she decided she was going to change the direction of her life. She discussed her ideas with her husband, and after lots of hard work and sacrifices, she came up with a new track for her future. Lori gave up her high-powered career and decided to focus her efforts on starting a family through adoption.

Next, she contacted the Red Cross to find out how she could volunteer with the organization. Before the Flight 1549 incident, Lori admitted she knew a lot about American Red Cross services and had the utmost respect for the organization. One of her aunts was very active with national disaster response, so Lori heard much about the need for Red Cross services. Additionally, Lori was a regular blood donor and dedicated 100 percent of her United Way donation to the Red Cross. She knew the Red Cross is a good steward with donations, having researched that only 6-8 percent of donations goes toward administrative expenses.

Lori said that prior to the crash, she would have liked to volunteer with the Red Cross, but her 60-hour-per-week job prevented that.

Now, having left her job, she has taken many Red Cross training classes and plans to look at all the opportunities there and decide where to focus her efforts.  It might be disaster response, transportation, fundraising or teaching. No matter where she settles, she will bring great Red Cross passion – for hers is truly from the heart!

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