A mysterious explosion ripped open an Aloha Airlines jet "like a convertible" at 24,000 feet, injuring 60 people and apparently tossing a flight attendant to her death before the pilot landed safely.
The Boeing 737, with one engine aflame and about 15 to 20 feet of its cabin exposed, flew for 25 miles after the blast and made an emergency landing at Kahului Airport at 2 p.m. Thursday (6 p.m. MDT), airline officials said."There was big bang when it happened, and everybody looked up and we were looking at blue sky," said passenger Bill Fink of Honolulu.
Another passenger, Alice Godwin of Boulder City, Nev., said she put on a life jacket and put her head between her knees. "I sang all the hymns I knew," she said. "That kept me busy."
"Everybody screamed," said Dan Dennin, also of Honolulu. "However, it was very brief the panic. . . . The rest of the plane was intact, and we did not go into any unusual attitudes or anything like that. I think that people realized the plane was still flying and they quickly went about the business of doing whatever they could do to save their lives."
Mark Eberly, a ramp supervisor at the airport, said he dropped to his knees in shock as he watched the plane land with one of its engines smoking and a section of the top missing. "I saw hair flying in the wind and arms dangling," he said.
The cause of the blast was unknown Thursday night, said Kevin Morimatsu, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators to the scene, and FBI agents were sent from Honolulu to determine whether the blast was caused by a bomb, said FBI spokesman Robert Heafner.
Craig Nichols of Pocatello, Idaho, said after the plane came to a stop on the ground, he saw "some really mangled people (passengers)," including one with an arm almost severed.
"It looked like a normal landing with the whole top of the plane gone," he said, adding that the damage began behind the cockpit, "clear down to the windows," and extended to the rear.
"It looked like a convertible," said Joe Ronderos of Los Angeles.
"It was like somebody had peeled off a layer of skin. You could just see all the passengers sitting there," said George Harvey, area coordinator for the Federal Aviation Administration in Honolulu.
At a news conference in Honolulu, Maurice Myers, president of Aloha Airlines, said the explosion occurred in the front of the passenger section, where nothing is stored.
Myers cited the "extraordinary performance" of pilot Robert L. Schornsteimer in bringing the plane in safely. Schornsteimer has flown for the airline for 12 years.
Sixty people were taken to Maui Memorial Hospital and 12 were admitted, two in critical condition and four serious, said Dr. Charles Mitchell, emergency room director. Injuries included burns, bruises and cuts, he said.
The missing flight attendant, identified as Clarabelle B. Lansing of Honolulu, was probably either ejected by the blast or blown out of the plane by the wind, said Clifford Hue, another FAA area manager.
"I think the stewardess (Lansing) had just picked up the microphone to start talking" when the explosion occurred, Fink said.
Fink and Dennin said some of the passengers hung on to another standing flight attendant so she would not be sucked out of the plane, and they praised the cabin crew for helping calm the passengers.
The explosion occurred southeast of Maui while the plane was at an altitude of 24,000 feet, the airline said. It said the 110-mile flight from Hilo on Hawaii Island to Kahului carried 89 passengers, five crew members and an air traffic controller from Hilo Airport.
Officials at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the primary subsidiary of Boeing Co., said there were no fuel lines or other potential sources for an explosion in the part of the plane where the blast was reported.
"The fuel is in the wing, the engines are in the wing and the fuel lines are all right there," Boeing spokesman Tom Cole said in Seattle.