PENSACOLA, Fla. — A Delta jet engine blew apart and ripped into the cabin packed with holiday travelers as the plane sped down a runway Saturday, killing a mother and son and forcing the pilot to abort takeoff.
Delta Flight 1288 was headed to Atlanta carrying its capacity of 142 passengers and five crew members, said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta. In addition to the fatalities, seven people were injured, at least one seriously.
The 8-year-old MD-88 jet was 1,500 feet down the runway when passengers reported seeing smoke from the left engine, Bergen said.
Delta spokesman Bill Berry said pieces of the engine pierced the fuselage after the engine caught fire.
"At this point we believe it was a major failure of the engine," Berry said, adding that there was no indication of fire in the cabin.
The dead were identified as Anita S. Saxton and Nolan Saxton, 12, of Scottville, Mich. No age was available for Anita Saxton. The victims were seated in row 37, very close to the engine, Berry said.
Also on board were Nolan's brother Derrick Saxton, 15, and his sister Spencer Saxton, 9. Both were in good condition late Saturday at Sacred Heart Hospital. The hospital did not release the exact nature of their injuries.
"At first I thought it was a blown tire until I saw the engine flying off the runway," said Jean Paul Menard, a passenger traveling with his wife and 11-month-old child. "It was the front part of the engine. I seen the smoke and I just wanted to get my family off of there."
His wife, Brenda, said part of the engine burst through the fuselage.
"There was part of it that went through to the other side," she said.
Bill Schmitz, 65, of Mission Viejo, who was unhurt, said, "We kind of thought it was just a routine deal up in first class. But it was far from routine. . . . When we finally got out, we looked over there and we saw that the rotary blades out of the jet motor had blown and had sheared the plane just like a can opener."
Mark Sullivan, a spokesman for East Hartford, Conn.-based Pratt & Whitney, which manufactured the engines for the McDonnell-Douglas plane, said the company believes a fan blade in the front of the left engine failed.
Broken pieces of the blade probably penetrated the fan case and debris went flying, Sullivan said.
"We believe that is what happened. But we have not confirmed it because we haven't examined the engine," Sullivan said.
Of Delta's fleet of more than 500 planes, 120 are MD-88s. "I am not aware that the MD-88s we have used have had any problems," Berry said.
The plane's engines, located on each side of the rear fuselage, are the Pratt & Whitney-made JT8D-219s.
In May, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended to the FAA that certain Pratt & Whitney jet engines be inspected for cracks. Sullivan said the JT8D-219 was not among those to be inspected.
The NTSB's recommendation stemmed from an incident Jan. 30 at LaGuardia International Airport in which an engine on a Delta Air Lines Boeing 727 failed, throwing several parts through the engine covering. The crew halted the plane's takeoff and passengers were evacuated without injury, the board said.
Schmitz, 65, a retired sales executive, called a daughter in Pensacola to report he was all right, so the family was never worried about him, said daughter Sharon Schmitz, who was at her parents' home in Mission Viejo. Bill Schmitz had logged more than a million miles flying during 35 years of business travel for Hallmark, she said, but this scare was a lesson.
"We always took for granted that he'd come home to us. This made us realize you can't take that for granted," Sharon Schmitz said.
In June 1995, a fire that destroyed a ValuJet plane at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport was found to have been caused by a compressor disc in a JT8D engine that shattered and cut through a fuel line. A flight attendant suffered burns in the incident and six passengers were injured.
Berry said the Delta MD-88's left engine underwent routine maintenance before it was installed in January. He did not elaborate.
At least 30 passengers on Saturday's flight were evacuated using slides. The rest use the stairs.
Berry said he didn't know if passenger injuries were caused by the engine fire or people trying to evacuate the plane.
Five of the injured were taken to Baptist Hospital. One was treated and released and one was in serious condition with a fractured leg. Three others, including a 3-month-old girl, were in good condition.
The plane was scheduled to fly on to Boston from Atlanta.
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.
Delta has had two other fatal accidents since 1985. On Aug. 2, 1985, a Lockheed L-1011 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, killing 137 people. On Aug. 31, 1988, a Boeing 727 crashed and burned on takeoff at Dallas-Fort Worth, killing 14 people.
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood contributed to this story.