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Woman Falls or Leaps to Death From Corporate Plane

Tragedy: A fellow passenger tried to pull her to safety as she plunged out a door above Sacramento during a Hewlett-Packard shuttle flight.

December 16, 2000|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite a frantic attempt by a fellow passenger to save her, an employee of high-technology giant Hewlett-Packard Co. plunged to her death after she leaped or fell from a corporate plane 2,000 feet above Sacramento, the FBI said Friday.

The body of the young woman, dressed in a dark suit, was found Friday afternoon in a field behind a home in south Sacramento, officials said.

The Sacramento County coroner's office identified her as Elisabeth Mathild Otto. A Hewlett-Packard spokesman said she was 29 and was an employee of HP Germany who was on temporary assignment in the corporation's Northern California offices.

In a bizarre twist, two passengers who saw the woman fall from the plane's rear door, including a man who lunged for her and tried to pull her back inside, were evidently so distraught that they were unable to tell the crew what happened until after the plane landed in San Jose about 6 p.m. Thursday, an FBI spokesman said. Police were notified 45 minutes later.

Spokesman Andrew Black said the FBI had ruled out foul play. "It seems to be either an accident or a possible suicide," he said.

The twin-engine plane, a 15-seat de Havilland Otter, carried five passengers and two pilots when it left Lincoln Regional Airport near Roseville, northeast of Sacramento, late Thursday afternoon, officials said. Hewlett-Packard operates the shuttle as a regular service for employees commuting between its Silicon Valley offices and its facilities in Roseville.

Soon after takeoff, the pilot noticed a warning light indicating a problem with the right rear door and made an emergency landing at Sacramento Executive Airport, a municipal airport that handles private and corporate traffic, the FBI said.

The pilot checked the door, determined there was no problem and took off again en route to San Jose. Three minutes later, the door opened.

"The lady was in the last seat by the door," said Brent Botta, a second FBI spokesman. "A gentleman seated in front of her turned around, saw the door was ajar and she was partly out. He lunged, grabbed her arm and shoulder and tried to pull her back inside."

Otto slipped through the man's grasp, Botta said.

The open door set off another alarm in the cockpit and the co-pilot rushed into the cabin and managed to reseat the standing male passenger and close the door, Botta said.

But the co-pilot apparently did not notice that the woman was missing, and the other passengers were too upset to speak, the spokesman said.

Amid the confusion and noise in the small, non-pressurized plane, the co-pilot may have assumed the man still standing was upset because the door was open, Botta said. The co-pilot had to struggle to get the man back into his seat, the spokesman said.

"It's extremely strange, obviously a very stressful situation," he said.

A San Jose police spokesman said a 911 call was received at 6:43 p.m. Thursday from a mechanic at San Jose airport.

The woman's body was found Friday afternoon in a field near a community vegetable garden.

Jerry Snyder, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Authority's Western Pacific region, said a preliminary investigation found that the door was working properly and could not have opened on its own.

Snyder said the FAA did not believe the pilot and co-pilot had erred in continuing the flight to San Jose after the incident.

"The inspectors found that they acted in accordance with all regulations and requirements," he said.

He said the investigation would not be completed for several weeks.

Hewlett-Packard spokesman Dave Berman said the young woman, a Dutch citizen, worked for the corporation's procurement department and was on assignment in its Palo Alto and Roseville offices. She was living in San Francisco.

In a statement, Hewlett-Packard said it was deeply saddened by the incident but would release no further details out of respect for the woman and her family.

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