DANVILLE — Chanting "Sully! Sully!" a crowd of several thousand gathered at a hometown hero celebration in downtown Danville on Saturday to salute US Airways Pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
The hero himself said only a few words when he was finally handed the microphone — after a long line of speeches by Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, and others.
"It was circumstances that put this experienced crew (in charge) of that plane on that particular day," Sullenberger, 58, said from a staging area set up on the Town Green. "We were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do."
His quietness on the subject the entire world is most curious about — namely, what happened Jan. 15, right before he was forced to land Flight 1549 in the icy waters of the Hudson River — had been expected. Town officials and Sullenberger's spokesman said earlier this week that the pilot planned to honor his union's request that he refrain from speaking about the incident until the National Transportation Safety Board's official investigation was further along.
But despite his reticence, or perhaps because of it, the man dubbed "The Hero of the Hudson" cemented his image Saturday as a humble guy with extraordinary skills who believes he was just doing his job.
"A hero is someone who didn't necessarily plan on being a hero but who came through when it counted," Arnerich said. The mayor presented Sullenberger with a symbolic Key to the Town, something that has been done only twice in the town's 150-year history, Arnerich said.
Sullenberger's actions "will be studied and simulated and lectured about for decades to come," said San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Richard Price, who awarded Sullenberger with a special medal of honor from the district.
Sullenberger, a Danville resident for the past 13 years, previously spent six years in the Air Force flying fighter jets, including deployments to Asia and Europe. He also served on the Air Force's official aircraft accident investigation board. He is married with two daughters, one of whom just turned 16.
His wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, choked up when she described how she and her husband have been "overwhelmed" by the outpouring of affection that has come by way of letters and e-mail messages from around the world since the river landing.
"I seem to have a problem with (uncontrollable) tears lately," she joked, adding, "When we walked around the corner today and saw all your faces, it just took my breath away."
Sullenberger, who with his family attended Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama at the president's request, has been praised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others for pulling off one of the most remarkable feats in aviation history.
Flying at 3,000 feet, after just taking off from LaGuardia Airport in Queens, Sullenberger made the split-second decision to land his jet on the river after both of its engines malfunctioned — a situation that investigators have attributed to a large flock of birds striking the engines.
After landing in the water, Sullenberger then reportedly walked the aisles of the wrecked plane twice to make sure all 155 passengers and crew members had escaped before allowing emergency workers to take him to safety. There were no casualties or serious injuries, and many of the passengers were back home with their families within hours.
"He had two minutes to make a decision. That's 120 seconds — I can't even say my name that fast," Arnerich said.
The scene in Danville on Saturday was like a hometown Fourth of July parade in January, as a local marching band blasted patriotic music and raincoat-clad spectators waved American flags. Air Force personnel performed a traditional flag presentation and flyover, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd, and a virtuoso from nearby Venture High School in Danville played the bagpipes before the start of the ceremony.
"We just came to let him know we thought what he did was amazing," said Ronni Carlier of Danville. She was there with a group of family and friends.
Nearby, 11-year-old Danville resident Michael Lloyd — whose father, grandfather and two uncles are pilots — demonstrated with his hands how Sully landed the plane.
"He put the tail down first," said the boy, who was wearing a shirt with a picture of an airplane on it.
For now, Sullenberger remains the toast of the town, with media outlets lined up to hear his firsthand account of the crash. One major interview, with the CBS program "60 Minutes," is reportedly scheduled for Feb. 8. (An interview scheduled for last week with NBC's "Today" show had been canceled.)
Sullenberger will forever be "a symbol (for) emergency responders when confronted with a crisis," Danville police Chief Chris Wenzel said. He named Sullenberger to be Danville's first honorary Police Department member — a gesture that drew laughter from the crowd.
But despite all the hubbub surrounding her husband, Lorrie Sullenberger said Sully is still "the man who makes my cup of tea every morning."
"I knew when I married Sully, the one thing I knew for sure is that he was the most honorable man I knew," she tearfully told eager well-wishers Saturday.
"I knew what the outcome would be that day because I knew my husband."