HONOLULU — A 10-by-20-foot rectangular hole tore open on the right side of a United Airlines jumbo jet carrying 355 people to New Zealand early Friday, sucking nine passengers to presumed death at 20,000 feet and injuring 18 others.
The incident, which began with what a number of passengers said seemed like an explosion, occurred 20 to 30 minutes after the jet left Honolulu International Airport. Despite the fact that two of the plane's four engines subsequently failed, the jet's veteran pilot was able to fly 50 miles back to Honolulu, where he made an emergency landing.
Although federal officials said it was too early to rule out foul play, most aviation experts said they believed the incident was not a case of sabotage.
However, there was no immediate explanation for why the hole opened up around the side baggage door of the Boeing 747 beneath the ninth row of the main cabin, exposing the airplane's business-class section to a sudden change in cabin pressure that pulled passengers into the darkened sky and exposed the rest of the plane to a chill nightmare of noise, debris and dust.
Speculation centered on the possibility of a failed cargo door lock, a structural failure in the fuselage or the possibility that an explosion in an engine had caused a part of the engine to pierce the fuselage.
After a cargo door on another Boeing 747 partially opened in flight because of a damaged lock last year, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to improve door lock systems on older Boeing 747s. That work had yet to be performed on the jet used on Flight 811, but United officials noted that the FAA-imposed deadline is Dec. 31 of this year.
All those who died Friday were passengers. They were identified by the airline as Anthony and Barbara Fallon, Long Beach; Susan and Harry Craig, Morristown, N.J; Mary Handley, Bay City, Mich.; Rose Harley, Hackensack, N.J.; Lee Campbell, Wellington, New Zealand, and Dr. John Michael Crawford and John Swann of Sydney, Australia.
The Fallons of Long Beach were described by neighbors Friday as "intrepid fliers. They traveled internationally and always together," said Jeanne and Alvin Reid.
United Airlines' corporate headquarters in Chicago declined Friday night to provide the full list of 336 passengers, 15 flight attendants, three crew members and one non-working crew member on board the flight.
Flight 881 is United's most direct to Auckland, New Zealand, from San Francisco. Passengers left San Francisco in a 727 at 6 p.m. Thursday for Los Angeles. Those traveling to Honolulu or New Zealand changed to the ill-fated 747 in Los Angeles. The second leg to Honolulu was completed uneventfully.
Survivors described moments of surreal terror--first, the shocking jolt, then their fear that the plane would crash into the ocean before it wobbled back to the airport.
"It was horrible," said Paul Hotz, a 35-year-old Australian fashion designer flying home to Sydney after a business trip in Los Angeles and New York with his wife, Susan, their daughter and a friend, who were sitting close to the hole. "All of a sudden the man seated next to Susan just disappeared."
"The stewardess who'd been serving drinks was knocked down, bleeding profusely. I thought we were all going to die. I locked my legs around her (the stewardess) so she couldn't be blown out. When we landed, I carried her out," Hotz said.
"The noise and the wind were horrific. We tried to shout but we couldn't hear each other. We managed to put on our life jackets."
There were no intercom instructions from the stewardesses. They could not have been heard over the din that swept in.
"A stewardess came by with a (battery powered) megaphone and told us to get into the landing position," said Susan Hotz, 37.
She did not think they were going to live.
"I thought the impact when we landed would break the plane in two," she said.
The couple talked quietly in a Honolulu hotel room 10 hours after their ordeal. Hotz's cut and bruised arm was in a sling. He could not remember how he hurt it. His wife's wrist was bruised. With them was a traveling companion, Kerry Lappan, 31, who remembered a poignant moment.
"The whole plane was falling in pieces from the wind. The whole plane was starting to shake. I thought, 'This is it.' But there was a man in front of me. I don't know who it was. A wonderful, wonderful man. He held my hand and he comforted me. It was so lovely to have someone's hand to hold."
Flight 811 represented the third time in less than 10 months that a jet manufactured by Boeing Co. had suffered midair fuselage damage.
Last April 28, a flight attendant was killed and 61 persons injured when a portion of the fuselage on a Boeing 737 peeled off during an Aloha Airlines flight from Hilo to Honolulu, exposing the first-class section to the open air at 24,000 feet.