Attorney Bruce Lampert of Denver has spent 10 years representing air-disaster victims. Friday, he was one.
The nightmarish accident on United Flight 811 occurred without warning as flight attendants were preparing to serve beverages, Lampert said.
"Some people who noted the time told me it took us 20 minutes to fly back to Hawaii," he said. "I can tell you it seemed much longer. Much, much longer."
Lampert, also a private pilot, works for a law firm that routinely represents air-crash victims, including survivors and families of victims of Continental Flight 1713 in Denver and, most recently, the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster over Lockerbie, Scotland.
He was on his way to a scuba-diving vacation on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Shari Peterson of Denver was sitting in an aisle seat a few feet from where a gaping hole tore through Flight 811's fuselage.
"She said that for a few seconds, all she could feel was shock," said her sister, Marilyn Peterson. "Then it dawned on her that faces she looked at a few minutes ago weren't there. The people were gone."
Peterson works for a Denver travel agency and was flying to Australia to escort a group of vacationers. She suffered cuts and bruises.
The accident occurred at about 2 a.m., when passengers were settling in for the all-night flight to New Zealand. Many were to go from there to Sydney, Australia.
"We were at a point in the flight where things were low-key," Lampert said. "The lights were pretty dim, and people were huddled up with blankets and pillows. Then, in an instant, there was an incredible explosive decompression of the aircraft, not an explosion."
"It was petrifying," Lampert added.
"In the upper deck, where I was, one of the windows blew completely out. There was incredible noise . . . and dust and papers everywhere. There was terror in everyone's faces."
Lampert said he thinks the accident was caused by a structural failure in the aircraft. He did not hear an explosion before the decompression, he said, and the hole in the fuselage was cut cleanly along the outline of the airline's cargo door.
Peterson told her husband, Max Thompson, that she heard a "loud pop like a paper bag exploding."
The plane's passenger cabin immediately plunged into darkness. The noise was unbearable.
"She said it was so loud you could barely talk to the person next to you," he said.
As the plane turned back toward Hawaii, Peterson said, she held the hand of a flight attendant who was caught beneath two seats in the row behind her.
The return trip was terrifying. "She could see the ocean, and when they turned the plane, she could look back and see all the islands," Thompson said.
Lampert said the word that one man had sighted the islands again was passed quickly from passenger to passenger.
"There was a tremendous amount of relief. People felt then that even if we crashed into an ocean, there could be an effort to save us."
Lampert plans to spend a few days in Hawaii before going on to Australia. "I want to sort the whole thing out," he said.