Even as freezing cold wind and mist whipped inside the depressurized cabin, blowing hats, ear buds and phones away from their owners, passengers said the scene, for the most part, remained “eerily calm.”
Flight attendants did their best to communicate with passengers over the noise, and passengers comforted each other and relied on the plane’s still-functioning Wi-Fi to send text messages to loved ones.
Nicholas Hoch, 33, a Portland-based architect flying to visit his girlfriend in California, said in an interview with The Washington Post that he had settled back into seat 12A next to a window, listening on his headphones to a podcast about Tokyo. And then, Hoch said, at about 16,000 feet: “All of a sudden, hell breaks loose.”
He described hearing “a big boom in the back, a big pop,” followed by a rapid depressurization of the cabin that caused a white cloud of mist to fill the plane. It “kind of hits me in the face, feels like cool vapor,” he said. His hat flew off his head, which he somehow managed to catch. The long hair of female passengers around him whipped back in their seats. Earbuds and phones flew backward, and in some cases, out of the plane.
The plane lurched unsteadily and began “tipping left and right.” Oxygen masks popped from overhead and everyone began fastening the masks to their faces and helping others around them, Hoch said. A flight attendant’s voice came over the speakers urging people to put their masks on, keep their seatbelts on and stay seated.
“I’m like, ‘Something’s bad happening, something wrong is going on, it’s not right.’ That’s where the fear set in, and I started getting really scared,” he said.
Hoch said the gaping hole wasn’t visible to everyone, and he and others initially didn’t know what was happening around them. He recalled a woman walking up the aisle to the front of the plane and yelling out that someone’s shirt was sucked off their body through a hole in the plane. And then another man stood up and shouted, pointing back: “There’s a (expletive) hole in the plane! There’s a hole!”
Passengers gasped as flight attendants again reminded passengers to put on their masks and stay seated and buckled. “I just tried to do my best to remain calm and knew that what I could do to contribute to the situation was to remain calm, remain seated, make sure everyone else around me was remaining calm – there’s nothing else you can do as a passenger,” Hoch said.
Hoch said he thought about the stories of passengers on flights during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks texting their loved ones and knew he wanted to do the same. Using the plane’s Wi-Fi, he was able to text. He told his girlfriend he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. They each said they loved each other.
Later, the airline would inform the public that the part that blew out of the plane was a part of a sealed door plug that is sometimes used as an emergency exit. It was later found in a school teacher’s backyard. The two seats closest to the hole did not hold passengers.
Comfort from a group chat
Emma Vu, 21, from Tigard, Ore., said she had drifted off to sleep in seat 18B after takeoff. She remembers waking up to the feeling of falling. She couldn’t see what was happening but she knew it wasn’t turbulence. The oxygen masks were dangling overhead, and she felt a breeze.
“The flight attendant came on the intercom saying ‘Put your mask on. Don’t help other people until you put yours on,” said Vu, who works as a competitive swimming coach and content marketer for Arena, a U.S. a swimwear brand. “The things you hear in the safety protocol before each flight but never pay attention to.”
Even though she reminded herself that the plane was still flying, she said it’s hard to stay calm because “you’re fighting yourself.”
“I already practice a lot of mindful breathing and that kind of thing, for general anxiety but, obviously, very big situation. I don’t think I could just breath through it,” she said. “A big turnaround for me was when I saw the attendants handing out oxygen tanks. That clicked in my mind that I need to calm down because I don’t want to take an oxygen tank away from someone who would need it more than me.”
Vu texted her parents, her boyfriend and a group chat of friends from high school. The first text she sent her parents was “the masks r down.” The second was “I am so scared right now.”
“I really felt like I was going to die,” she said.
Vu said she began documenting what was happening around her. “It almost brought me comfort that in that moment I could just do what I always do: Take pictures.”
Her friends in the group chat began tracking her flight path and texted Vu that the plane was turning around to land back in Portland. That’s when she knew everything was going to be okay.
“It made me feel a lot better,” Vu said. “I’m not going to land in someone’s house or the river.”
Reassurance from strangers and flight attendants
Vu said she managed through the crisis because of the empathy from strangers. The two women sitting on either side of Vu comforted her and rubbed her back. A flight attendant paused to tell her everything would be okay.
“She took that moment to make me feel like I was the only passenger on the flight,” Vu said. “Even though there were obviously 170-something of us all freaking out.”
Flight attendant Elizabeth Simpson, who was not on the flight but has worked as a commercial flight attendant for eight years, said the description of the flight attendants trying to calm passengers is a reminder of the importance of the job. Even though messages delivered during in-flight safety instructions and announcements can feel rote, the details can really matter in a crisis, she said.
“Everything we say to passengers — whether it’s fasten your seatbelt or don’t smoke or don’t talk on the phone at a certain point — it’s not because we want to hear our voice,” Simpson says. “It’s because it’s something has happened in the past that caused a safety event that we want to prevent from happening again.”
This is the second time this month that flight attendants were critical in an emergency: Last week, the Japan Airlines crew was credited with safely evacuating all 379 passengers off the plane before it burst into flames. Simpson has worked with many flight attendants who are former doctors, EMTs, firefighters, nurses, law enforcement officers and military veterans; she says they’re particularly well-suited for the job because of their ability to control their own emotions and others’ in an emergency.
“We’re trying to defeat the idea that we just sling Cokes and snacks here, that we’re ‘sky waitresses,’” said Simpson.
A strange return to normalcy upon landing
Hoch said that one reason the plane became quiet is that everyone was wearing oxygen masks, and it wasn’t easy to speak. He said passengers seemed in “shock and wide-eyed,” as the plane began to descend. “It was eerily calm.”
Behind him, two boys and their mother gripped each other in fierce embraces. The woman sitting next to him had tears in her eyes as she crunched down in her seat, holding herself. Minutes passed. The plane flew lower and lower to the ground, and then it landed.
Some passengers in the cabin applauded, Hoch said. Then the pilot came on, informing everyone that they were back in Portland’s airport, having made an emergency landing because of a hole in the plane – their first official confirmation.
When they arrived at the gate, medics and firefighters rushed into the cabin first, escorting a few injured out.
And then, “the oddest thing” happened, Hoch said. “We all deboarded like normal. It was surreal,” he said, laughing slightly at the memory. “You’re just waiting for people to get off 10, 12, 15 rows ahead of you. The moments of that —the mundanity of air travel —was comical in some ways. It’s like, ‘We gotta wait to get off now?’” he said.
Vu said that when the crisis had ended, the flight attendant who had comforted her recognized her. “She even recognized me after the flight had ended and she was like ‘Can I give you a hug?’”
The passengers were told to go to a customer service counter. Hoch said he sat down for a moment, getting emotional as he spoke with his mom on the phone. He circled back to the gate one last time to snap a photo of the plane. He was struck by the hole – how perfectly cut it was, not jagged but smooth and neat.
At the guest counter, Hoch said he waited more than two hours in a single line before he got to the counter, where a staff member asked if he would like to reschedule his flight or get a refund. Hoch chose to take a later flight that very night to Ontario, Calif., at 11:30 p.m. He was flying to visit his girlfriend in California. “I felt like lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice,” he said.
This time, he requested to not get a window seat. “We got super unlucky in terms of that happening to us,” Hoch said. “And super lucky that we were able to survive it.”
The next day, Vu was also back on a plane, this time to visit friends in Burbank, Calif. On Monday, she was talking to The Post moments before boarding another flight home. She said she’s a little nervous to fly again but she knows she has to “just get over it.”
“Logically, statistically, the odds of it happening again: so slim,” Vu said. “Nonexistent, basically. Hopefully.”