Some passengers looked up to see rows of seats and people near them suddenly gone. One man saw sky. A women's earrings were ripped off by the wind.
Moments after a huge hole opened in the fuselage of a United Airlines 747 jet Friday, nine people were missing, debris was flying, oxygen masks were released and a loud roar filled the cabin.
But, remarkably, passengers on Flight 811 stayed calm, many aboard said.
"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.
Brenda and her husband, Doug, were sitting in the plane's business-class section, where the blast occurred.
"You cannot comprehend what it's like sitting for half an hour, waiting to die," Brenda said. "Which way are you going to go. Are you going to drown? Are you going to die in a crash-landing?"
"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," she said.
She said she did not see anyone sucked out, but "you don't actually see them sucked out because it happens too quickly. It's like a car crash."
One of the stewardesses, struck by debris while walking in the aisle, was apparently saved by passengers who grabbed her "to keep her from being pulled out of the plane," Brenda said.
"It was just like flying in a can" because everything had been peeled away from the metal walls of the plane. "Up above you there was no baggage compartment," only strips of tin foil, she said.
"It was like a dream _ a section of the plane wasn't there any longer," Gary Garber said in a telephone interview from the emergency room of a Honolulu hospital.
"We heard a hissing noise and then noise from the explosion, if you want to call it that. Then we put our heads down. A moment later, we put our heads up and I could see where the seats used to be and the people weren't there," said Garber, of Tarzana, Calif.
Passenger Lynoor Birrell, of Wellington, New Zealand, said she was about six to eight feet from the hole in the fuselage. She looked up and saw that three rows of seats were gone.
"There were seats just gone. There were people sitting there," she said.
Another passenger, Lenore Birrell, who is 6-months pregnant and was flying with her husband and daughter, said, "I thought we would land in the sea. I thought we would drown."
"It (the wall) was gone. There was debris flying around," she said. "There was only a tin foil roof where you put your bags.
"I put a pillow over (my daughter's) eyes so she could not see what was going on," she said.
The plane left Honolulu International Airport with 336 passengers and 18 crew members at 1:53 a.m. for Auckland, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia. It returned 40 minutes later with a 10-by-40 foot vertical hole in the forward baggage area on the right side of the airliner.
Some of Garber's fingers were broken. His wife was uninjured. He said they were seated in the business class section of the plane.
"The aisle seats right adjacent to us are what got hit. We were about 18 inches from flying out the plane ourselves," Garber said.
Rochelle Perel, 48, of Beverly Hills, Calif., also was sitting next to the seats that blew away.
"They were just starting cocktail service and there was kind of a hissing sound, like air and then a tearing away of the plane. It didn't sound like an explosion," Perel said. "It sounded more like the plane coming apart and a large section of the aircraft on the right side just blew away with the passengers in those seats with it."
"The flight crew was superb," said Paul Grigson of Canberra, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. "The crew got everyone into crash position and they basically stayed that way," he said.
Grigson thought there were a few seats missing near the hole, but did not know if any people were missing.
He said he was surprised when he got off the plane and saw the size of the hole because he did not think it had been that bad.
"The hole was huge. You could drive a car through it," he told radio station KSSK.
"A cheer went up when we landed," he said.
Everyone used the emergency exits to leave the plane, and "we could smell the petrol (gasoline)" so everyone got away from the plane as quickly as possible, Nisbet said.