PHOENIX (AP) — One passenger said it was a “real quick blast, like a gun.” Another called it “pandemonium.” Still another described watching a flight attendant and another passenger pass out, their heads striking the seats in front of them as they lost consciousness.

Federal officials said it was a “fuselage rupture” — a large hole on the top of the Boeing 737 — that led to a loss of cabin pressure and a terrifying descent from 36,000 feet to an emergency landing at a military base in the Arizona desert.

No serious injuries were reported among the 118 aboard, according to Southwest Airlines, and the FBI said it was a “mechanical failure,” not an act of terror or other foul play. The cause of the hole was not immediately known.

Passenger Brenda Reese said Flight 812 had just left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for Sacramento, Calif., when a “gunshot-like sound” woke her up. She said oxygen masks dropped for passengers and flight attendants as the plane dove.

Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Los Angeles, said the pilot “made a rapid, controlled descent from 36,000 feet to 11,000 feet altitude.”

Don Nelson, who was seated one row from the rupture, said it took about four noisy minutes for the plane to dip to less than 10,000 feet, which made him “lightheaded.”

During the rapid descent, “people were dropping,” said Christine Ziegler, a 44-year-old project manager from Sacramento who watched as a crew member and a fellow passenger nearby faint, hitting their heads on the seats in front of them.

Larry Downey, who was seated directly below the hole when it opened, told Phoenix TV station KPNX that “it was pandemonium.”

“You could look out and see blue sky,” he said.

Joshua Hardwicke said he was awakened by a “sound like you shook up a pop can and dropped on the ground. It was like a firecracker.”

The 24-year-old motorcycle technician was seated seven rows from the hole, which Reese described as “at the top of the plane, right up above where you store your luggage.”

“The panel’s not completely off,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s like ripped down, but you can see completely outside… When you look up through the panel, you can see the sky.”

Cellphone photographs provided by Reese showed a panel hanging open in a section above the plane’s middle aisle, with a hole of about six feet long. Nelson compared the noise to a gun, “a real quick blast,” and said when the hole “first blew out, you could tell there was an oxygen deficiency.”

The plane landed at a military base in Yuma without any injuries reported, except for a flight attendant who was slightly injured, according to the airline. Reese said the crewmember fell and injured his nose, and that some people passed out “because they weren’t getting the oxygen.”

The National Transportation Safety Board said an “in-flight fuselage rupture” led to the drop in cabin pressure aboard the 15-year-old plane. A similar incident on a Southwest plane to Baltimore in July 2009 also forced an emergency landing when a foot-long hole opened in the cabin.

Four months earlier, the Dallas-based airline had agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle charges that it operated planes that had missed required safety inspections for cracks in the fuselage. The airline, which flies Boeing 737s, inspected nearly 200 of its planes back then, found no cracks and put them back in the sky.

Julie O’Donnell, an aviation safety spokeswoman for Seattle-based Boeing Commercial Airplanes, confirmed “a hole in the fuselage and a depressurization event” in the latest incident but declined to speculate on what caused it.

Reese said there was “no real panic” among the passengers, who applauded the pilot after he emerged from the cockpit following the emergency landing at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station/International Airport, some 150 miles southwest of Phoenix and about 40 minutes after takeoff from Sky Harbor.

“It was unreal. Everybody was like they were high school chums,” Ziegler said, describing a scene in which passengers comforted and hugged each other after the plane was on the ground. Southwest sent another airliner to take them to Sacramento later Friday.

“I fly a lot. This is the first time I ever had something like this happen,” said Reese, a 37-year-old single mother of three who is vice president for a clinical research organization. “I just want to get home and hold my kids.”

Gregor said an FAA inspector from Phoenix was en route to Yuma. The NTSB said it also was sending a crew to Yuma.

Holes in aircrafts can be caused by metal fatigue or lightning. The National Weather Service said the weather was clear from the Phoenix area to the California border on Friday afternoon.

In 1988, cracks caused part of the roof of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 to peel open while the jet flew from Hilo to Honolulu. A flight attendant was sucked out of the plane and plunged to her death, and dozens of passengers were injured.

 

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Comments (39)
  1. Cuckoo says:

    Southwest has been collapsing under the management of Gary Kelly. He’s no Colleen Barrett or Herb Kelleher.

    1. HEB says:

      What a groundless comment to make. Check your facts: Southwest remains one of the safest air carriers in the world and continues to be profitable.

  2. heidi says:

    2 planes in one day?

  3. Flyr says:

    @Cuckoo, This is directly related with the Boeing 737 classic series. I don’t think it has anything to do with Gary Kelly. They are phasing out those aircraft. You have to hand it to an airline who still has an A+ safety record.

    1. Randall says:

      A+ ? Tell that to the family of the 6 year old that died off the end of the runway at Chicago Midway.

      1. Stan says:

        It could have easily been any other air carrier in that situation at MDW given the amount of runway icing at the time. More blame lies on the airport management (who are responsible for the maintaining the runway).

        So yeah, Southwest.. as well as the rest of the industry, is incredibly safe. Consider the number of folks that are transported in the National Airspace System each day. Aviation is still the #1 safest method of travel.

      2. HEB says:

        Every life is precious, no doubt about that. But you are missing the point Flyr: Southwest does have an outstanding safety within the airline industry-the entire international airline industry, not just U.S.

  4. Iza Sinik says:

    How’d those folks get their cell phones powered up so fast as to send those “we’re going down” texts and tweets? Surely they’d obeyed the flight waitress’ command to turn them off…. I sure can’t wait to fly back cross the country to Sacramento on Monday, then to London the following week.

    1. Verdigris says:

      Switching a phone out of flight mode is quick.

      1. Iza Sinik says:

        Sure, but you’re s’posed to turn them OFF, not to airplane mode, as oxymoronic as that sounds.

      2. BD says:

        Actually, the phone only needs to be OFF for take off and landing. You can turn them back on to flight mode after they give the electronics announcement, which would be before they serve bevies.

      3. Verna says:

        They have to be off only during takeoff and until the plane has reached 10,000 feet or higher in altitude, Then they can be turned on, but only in airplane mode.

  5. MARCI RUSSELL BELLAS says:

    I THINK WE NEED TO MAKE SAFETY CHECKS MORE DSICIPLINE IT SEEMS THAT THERE IS A LAX PROBLEM WE SEEM TO BE HAVEING ALOT OF MECHANICAL
    PROBLEMS IN OUR AIR LINES. IT RUNS IN CERES WH EN THIS OCCURS. BEFORE WE LOOSE ANY LIVES I THINK WE NEED TO THING OF THE SAFETY AND WELL BEING OF OUR PASSENGERS AND I AM ONE WHOM LOVES TO FLY. AND FEEL VERY COMFORTABLE DOING SO.

    1. Kay says:

      Maybe you should take an English class before you post comments. Your post was embarassing to you.

  6. Anna says:

    What matters MOST is that all the passangers are ok…..what a total nightmare for these poor passangers.

  7. John says:

    A+ safely record? Maybe lucky they did not kill anybody!
    Why don’t you guys do a bit of research on Southwest and the FAA fines? Look at this:
    Southwest Air Agrees to $7.5 Million Fine, FAA Says (Update2)
    By John Hughes – March 2, 2009 18:02 EST

    March 2 (Bloomberg) — Southwest Airlines Co. agreed to pay a $7.5 million penalty for flying jets without fuselage inspections in 2006 and 2007, which would be the largest fine collected from an airline by the Federal Aviation Administration.

    The amount could double if the Dallas-based carrier fails to take steps outlined to protect safety, the FAA said in a statement today in Washington. The agency had proposed a record $10.2 million fine a year ago, saying Southwest operated 46 Boeing Co. 737s on 59,791 flights without full checks for cracks.

    You can go to this site and check it out:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=avFzkpTRRnHc&refer=us

    And there is much more….

    Other issue is the B737 (all series, from th -100 to the 900), they eventually develop lap joint problems. Boeing will tell you they are the most produced airliner in the world though, but nobody seems to be wondering why (maybe politics and lobby have something to do with it?). Ever wonder why a B737 is so much lightewr than a A320 for example? Maybe just because there is less material…I believe the skin in some areas on the fuselage are thinner than .030″, combined with a lapjoint assembly system that can hide corrosion (and add the airline policies of saving money by escalating maintenance intervals, all blessed by the FAA) you have a good recipe for potential problems.
    Sorry guys, I h=think I have been talking too much

    1. Stan says:

      Please don’t try to claim expertise in this when clearly you have none. I am an aircraft maintenance technician for another airline. The folks at SWA are diligent about inspecting their aircraft, as we all are.

      As far as the troubles they had in the past: The scope of those maintenance lapses consisted of a relatively minor part of a required inspection being looked over for a short period of time. The issues were self-reported (by SWA) to the FAA, despite what the media said. Additionally, what you failed to mention was that the airline settled those charges, and has instituted steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

      Southwest’s safety record is just as good as any other carrier, if not better. So please don’t make sweeping generalizations about things that you have no idea about.

      — Stan

  8. George says:

    Even at 4 bucks a gallon, driving is looking pretty good

  9. rmcsticks says:

    Im flying out with Delta this morning ( what a joke airline) the rudest people I have every flown with, there people are so slow…. Delta is a no go ! ! !

  10. Jeffrey M. Gompers says:

    Southwest is awesome.

    1. Peggy Gompers says:

      You’re awesome, Jeffrey. You’re awesome.

      I love you!

  11. MichaelEdits says:

    At least there weren’t any snakes.

  12. intheknow says:

    It just kills me how all the comments by people go off on a tangent.
    Metal fatigue on any commercial plane is inevitable. It is all based on vibration and
    velocity. Every landing and takeoff and speed of 500 miles per hour takes its toll on the skin of a airplane. Every plane only has show much life bases on use.
    Southwest keeps its ticket prices down and makes money because of keep its planes in the air as much as possible. It would be interesting to know how many hours of air- time have been logged by this plane.
    I am just glad no one got sucked out of the plane.
    Their was a made for TV movie done about the incident in Hawaii when the Aloha airlines plane open a large hole in its ceiling. They no longer fly inter-Island and it wasn’t because of lack of passengers.

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