The Idea of Order on the Hudson


The most memorable subplot in the saga of Flight 1549 was Chesley Sullenberger's skillful landing on the Hudson River. But Butler Shaffer notes another lesson worth retaining from the rescue:

[T]he only seen presence of government at the site of the U.S. Airways emergency landing involved police helicopters interfering with rescue efforts by keeping the water around the plane churned up. These helicopters were of value to the state, of course, as a visual symbol of its superintending presence above a scene in which its practical role was nonexistent. Like a president or state governor flying over an area hit by a tornado or flooding, such an aerial presence reinforces the vertically-structured mindset upon which political authority depends. After rescue efforts were substantially completed—with no loss of life—New York and New Jersey police officials arrived (those whom the New Jersey governor incorrectly described as the "first responders").

The real work of rescuing passengers and crew members was left to the sources from which the only genuine social order arises: the spontaneous responses of individuals who began their day with no expectation of participating in the events that will henceforth be high-water marks in their lives. After the airliner came to a stop, one private ferry-boat operator, sensing the danger of the plane's tail submerging, began pushing up on the tail in an effort to keep it elevated. Other private ferry-boat operators—whose ordinary work involved transporting people between New York and New Jersey—came to the scene in what became a spontaneously organized rescue under the direction of no one in particular. Photos of the area show the plane surrounded by ferryboats on all sides.

On board the plane, passengers were making their own responses. CNN's Wolf Blitzer—a man who has probably seen one-too-many Irwin Allen films—interviewed a passenger, asking whether those aboard the plane were yelling and screaming at their plight. "No," the man replied, going on to describe how calm and rational was the behavior of his fellow passengers; removing exit doors; putting on life vests; and helping one another get out onto the wing of the plane.

Something similar happened on a much larger scale after the attacks of 9/11, with an improvised waterborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan. Impressive as such efforts are, they shouldn't be surprising. Contrary to media stereotypes, disasters are usually followed by far more spontaneous cooperation than social disorder.