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They Waited for Death, Then Deliverance! : UNITED AIRLINES FLIGHT 811

February 25, 1989|RON HARRIS and JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writers

HONOLULU — Beverage service was about to begin on board United Airlines Flight 811. As the roomy Boeing 747 climbed skyward early Friday, Beverley Nisbet settled back, reflecting on her Hawaiian vacation and preparing for the long journey home to Hastings, New Zealand.

Suddenly, she heard "a muffled explosion." Then the wall of the plane blew away, taking several rows of passengers along with it.

"Debris was flying everywhere," recalled Nisbet, 50. "My initial reaction was: 'This was it. I'm not going home.' "

Heard Loud Pop

Down the aisle, Sherry Peterson of Denver heard a loud pop--like the noise "a paper bag makes when you pop it"--as a gaping hole was punched in the jumbo jet's thick flank. Travelers seated just two feet from her moments earlier were gone. The suction even pulled her earrings off.

David Birell was jarred awake by the blast. Opening his eyes, he saw an oxygen mask dangling in front of his face. His wife, Lenore, placed her pillow over their daughter's eyes: "I thought we would land in the sea. I thought we would drown."

As the deafening roar of the wind filled the cabin, the jumbo jet plunged from 20,000 to 4,000 feet. But remarkably, passengers remained calm, frozen, no doubt, by shock and the fear of what lay ahead.

They strapped on their life vests. They hugged each other. They gripped the armrests. They prayed.

And they waited.

Forty minutes later, Capt. David Cronin brought the wounded craft down at Honolulu International Airport as emergency crews looked on.

"There was a roar of applause," passenger Bruce Lampert, a Denver attorney, said. "I can tell you, that was a long flight back."

Shocked and drained, surviving passengers of Flight 811 recounted their horrifying ordeal above the Pacific on Friday, describing in graphic, chilling detail what many believed were there final moments.

Praise for Pilot

There was hearty praise for the pilot, who returned the disabled plane on two of its four engines, and obvious expressions of relief.

But many shaken passengers vowed never to fly again.

"I thought I was never going to see my children again, and this is the end of our lives," said Brenda, an Auckland, New Zealand, resident who asked that her surname be withheld. "You cannot comprehend what it's like sitting for half an hour, waiting to die. Which way are you going to go? Are you going to drown? Are you going to die in a crash-landing?"

Brenda, who was sitting in the business-class section where the fuselage was torn away, said: "There was a white flash and a loud bang, and then there was just debris being sucked out, parts of the plane peeling away like a banana."

Many passengers said they believed explosives had damaged the plane, and several expected a second blast to rip through the fuselage at any moment and send the plane tumbling downward through the darkness, into the sea.

"I thought it might have been a bomb and I was waiting for another one," Nisbet said. "I think there was a certain amount of relief, if you can call it that, when the plane still seemed to be going on and on."

Watched Seats 'Fly Out'

Tony Ryan, 31, a Sydney toy salesman, said he was just settling in, when the right side of the plane gave way and he watched several rows of seats "fly out the window."

John Kennedy, 21, also of Sydney, was seated in row 49. He said he saw the right engine start into sparks as debris was blown into it. Later, "the whole engine became engulfed in flame."

"It was like a meteor," Kennedy said. "That's when I thought I was going to die."

Kennedy, like many of the passengers aboard the plane, planned to leave Hawaii on a flight late Friday night. He was not thrilled with the prospect.

"I'm really nervous about flying back home," Kennedy said. "That'll be 12 hours of hell. When something like this happens, your whole life just flashes before your eyes . . . parents, girlfriends, friends, things in your life, things you've seen."

Eunice Brooks, 49, and her husband, Raymond, 54, both of Auckland, were seated on the left side of the plane, in row 16.

Mrs. Brooks said she heard a noise and believed "it was the drink trolley hitting the bulkhead." But "when we ended up wearing a window frame around our neck, I knew that wasn't it."

"We heard a bang," Brooks said. "A lot of seats on our side were bent and twisted so badly we found it hard to get out of the plane after we landed. People tried yelling but you couldn't hear each other. It was like talking down a long tunnel. You could see people's mouths moving but you couldn't hear them."

After the blast, Brooks said most of the passengers were forced to duck debris from ceiling panels and one of the lavatories, which broke apart in flight.

'Giant Wind Tunnel'

Bits of fiberglass formed a chalky dust that swirled around the cabin, which was like "a giant wind tunnel," Ryan said.

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