Lawyer Survives Hudson River Flight, Loses Job

In seat 24B as US Airways Flight 1549 fell silently toward the Hudson River, attorney Frank Scudere did not know that his name was on the list of lawyers that his firm planned to lay off the next morning.

In a one-in-a-million event, Scudere and his fellow passengers survived the plane's river ditching on Jan. 15, and he walked away with nothing worse than wet clothes. But he could not escape an everyday event that has claimed millions of other victims: He lost his job and found himself questioning his self worth.

Now he's a 48-year-old unemployed attorney. Like the Biblical Job, who lost and gained everything, Scudere searches for an elusive meaning in suffering and redemption. He's grateful, a bit angry and reflective. "I don't feel sorry for myself," he said. "It just shows the randomness of life, and the inevitability of loss. You can lose, and yet you can still be preserved. I lost my job, and yet I have my life."

Here's how he describes his trials of 2009:

‘I had the American dream’
On Wednesday, Jan. 14, Francis T. Scudere (pronounced skuh-DAIR) spent the evening with his father, Carmine, at Winthrop-University Hospital on Long Island. That day he found out his father's kidney disease had spread, requiring the amputation of a leg, but it seemed that his father would be well enough to go home soon.

On Thursday afternoon, Scudere was returning home to the Charlotte, N.C., area, in a middle seat near the back of the plane. He was a weekly commuter between work in New York City and home with his wife and two young daughters in Fort Mill, S.C.

"I had the American dream. My wife stayed home. Two great kids. Nice house."

Just out of LaGuardia Airport, the jet struck a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines.

"I looked at the gentleman next to me, and neither of us said a word. Everyone was quiet. We were making a turn. I saw skyscrapers. Water. Then 'Brace for impact' and I pretty much lost it."

After the jolt of a hard landing on the Hudson, he found himself waist-deep in cold water that was rushing into the plane. He made it out the side exit into the river, and then into a life raft. Uninjured but in a state of shock, he took the Long Island Rail Road to his mother's house.

A reprieve
The next morning, he was in his Times Square office at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of 2,000 attorneys employed at one of the largest corporate law firms in the world, when whispers went around about layoffs. An attorney he didn't know called him and asked him to come down to a conference room. Before he went, he told another senior attorney, "Oh, man, this can't be happening. I was on that plane yesterday." 

At the meeting, he was told he had been on the list to be laid off, but because he had been on the plane, he wouldn't be let go — at least "not today."

The next Tuesday, his father died at age 77.

On March 26, a little more than two months after the US Airways drama, he was called down to the HR office and informed that his position was eliminated.

"I was totally blindsided, because I had been told there would be no more layoffs," he said.

Still, he said, he has to thank Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III and his crew for giving him more time at the law firm.

"Sully saved my life, and he saved my job for two months," Scudere said. "It wasn't miraculous. It was skillful. He was an ultra-competent pilot."

He'd like to put to rest one aspect of the emergency landing, what he calls the fiction that a passenger opened the rear door, letting water into the plane.

Flight attendant Doreen Walsh said on "60 Minutes" that a female passenger rushed by her and opened the rear door.

No, Scudere said, he and others saw the flight attendant open the rear door. "Nobody was there to rush past her to open the door. I saw her back turned, and she was opening the door, and she said, 'Oh my God, we're in water!' I don't want to be critical. She hadn't gotten any warning that we'd be landing in the water. I just want to set the record straight."

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said it is aware of conflicting accounts about the rear door, and will try to sort out that issue when it releases its fact-finding report in June.

The NTSB also said that the fuselage tore open when the plane hit the river, so water would have flooded the passenger cabin whether or not a door was opened.

A US Airways spokesman said the airline knew of a dispute on the issue, and would pass a message to Walsh. She did not return the call.

US Airways did not dispute Scudere's account that he was on the flight, and Scudere shared correspondence from the airline documenting that he was one of the 150 passengers.

Each passenger received $5,000, payment of medical bills, if any, and reimbursement of their fare. Baggage is still being sorted out.

A legal journeyman, for hire and fire
Scudere was one of the staff attorneys a Skadden, Arps — a legal journeyman rather than a high-flying associate on track to be a partner, a Brooklyn Law School graduate for hire and fire. On his last big case, he and four other staff attorneys managed 140 temp attorneys defending a major subprime lender against a government investigation. He said his performance reviews in his four years at Skadden had been very good.

Unlike some firms, Skadden has not laid off any associates, but nearly all of the staff attorneys were let go, about 50 in all, along with some support staff, the firm said. To cut costs, the newest associates have been offered a stipend not to start work for six months. Young associates are also taking a six-month rotation through Scudere's old department, Litigation. In other words, some of Scudere's work may now be done by lawyers right out of law school.

Scudere recognizes that the law firm was under economic strain and appreciates that it paid him for more than eight weeks beyond his last day, plus $500 in exchange for signing the standard letter agreeing not to sue. Nevertheless, bitterness creeps in. He'd like the firm to know that there are more civil ways to lay off a person than cutting off his medical benefits immediately, and giving him three hours to gather his belongings before security escorts him out.

"I don't feel like I deserved special treatment. I just deserved to be treated civilly," he said. "I'm a 48-year-old attorney and I've worked in Big Six accounting firms. I've been laid off before. I've laid people off before, but I've never treated people like that before. It's bereft of any dignity."

Skadden Arps, through a spokesman who asked not to be named, confirmed the dates of Scudere's employment and confirmed that nearly every staff attorney was let go. When handling layoffs, the spokesman said, "the firm tries its best to carry them out in a sensitive and humane manner. But we recognize that these things aren't easy."

‘Daddy lost his job’
Back home in South Carolina, Scudere said he's hoping his job loss is temporary. But it's hard to see that redemption now.

"There are no jobs, even temp work, in big cities for lawyers. I'm thinking of becoming a teacher or working for a nonprofit, but I need to support my family."

He also wants to protect his family from the gloom. He hasn't told his daughters, who are nearly 9 and 4, about the US Airways flight, because he doesn't want to frighten them. They know he was laid off.

"My older daughter says, 'No, we can't go out to eat tonight, because Daddy lost his job.' She worries more than I do."

Yes, he notes with surprise, it is already April, the month of his daughters' birthdays. With a laugh, he said it was easier to keep track of those things when he had a BlackBerry. But on the plane he took off his jacket in case he had to swim, and his smartphone was in the pocket.

The law firm gave him another BlackBerry, which it took back when he was laid off.

"I feel displaced," he said. "Who am I? My identity as an attorney — that's gone."

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