Twisted metal, rushing wind: A narrowly avoided disaster as jet’s wall rips away at 3 miles high

Jan 8, 2024, 2:13 PM | Updated: 8:22 pm

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The loud “boom” was startling enough, and the roaring wind that immediately filled the airline cabin left Kelly Bartlett unnerved. Still, it wasn’t until a shaken teenager, shirtless and scratched, slid into the seat next to her that she realized just how close disaster had come.

A section of the Boeing 737 Max 9’s fuselage just three rows away had blown out — at 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) high — creating a vacuum that twisted the metal of the seats nearby, and snatched cellphones, headsets and even the shirt off the teenager’s back.

“We knew something was wrong,” Bartlett told The Associated Press on Monday. “We didn’t know what. We didn’t know how serious. We didn’t know if it meant we were going to crash.”

The first six minutes of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 from Portland to Southern California’s Ontario International Airport on Friday had been routine, the Boeing 737 Max 9 about halfway to its cruising altitude and traveling at more than 400 mph (640 kph).

Flight attendants had just told the 171 passengers that they could resume using electronic devices — in airplane mode, of course — when it happened.

Then suddenly a 2-foot-by-4-foot (61-centimeter-by-122-centimeter) piece of fuselage covering an unoperational emergency exit behind the left wing blew out. Only seven seats on the flight were unoccupied, and as fate would have it, these included the two seats closest to the blown-out hole.

The oxygen masks dropped immediately, and Bartlett saw a flight attendant walking down the aisle toward the affected row, leaning forward as if facing a stiff wind. Then flight attendants began moving passengers from the area where the blowout occurred.

Among them was the teenage boy moved next to Bartlett.

“His shirt got sucked off of his body when the panel blew out because of the pressure, and it was his seatbelt that kept him in his seat and saved his life. And there he was next to me,” she said, adding that his mother was reseated elsewhere.

“We had our masks on, and the plane was really loud so we couldn’t talk. But I had a … notes app on my phone that I was typing on. So I typed to him and I asked him if he was hurt,” Bartlett said. “I just couldn’t believe he was sitting there and what he must have gone through, what he must have been feeling at the time.”

She said the boy typed back that he was OK, but a bit scratched, adding “that was unbelievable” and “thank you for your kindness.”

The exit door plug landed in the southwest Portland backyard of high school physics teacher Bob Sauer. Sauer said his heart “did start beating a little faster” when he saw it in the beam of his flashlight Sunday night as he searched for any debris.

“It was very obviously part of a plane,” he told a group of reporters outside his home on Monday. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, people have been looking for this all weekend and it looks like it’s in my backyard.’”

Sauer said he and the seven National Transportation Safety Board agents who came to his home to pick up the door plug were amazed it was intact. It appeared that tree branches had broken its fall.

A headrest landed on the patio of Sauer’s neighbor, Diane Flaherty. Flaherty didn’t realize what the charcoal-colored cushion was until a friend emailed her to say federal agents were looking for airplane parts in her neighborhood. An NTSB agent came by to pick it up.

“What are the chances that a headrest cushion falls out of the sky into your backyard?” she said.

The pilots and flight attendants have not made public statements and their names have not been released, but in interviews with National Transportation Safety Board investigators they described how their training kicked in. The pilots focused on getting the plane quickly back to Portland and the flight attendants on keeping the passengers safe and as calm as possible.

“The actions of the flight crew were really incredible,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at a Sunday night news conference. She described the scene inside the cabin during those first seconds as “chaos, very loud between the air and everything going on around them and it was very violent.”

Bartlett echoed praise for the crew, saying the entire time she felt like the plane was under control even though the roaring wind was so loud she couldn’t hear the captain’s announcements.

“The flight attendants really responded well to the situation. They got everyone safe and then they got themselves safe,” she said. “And then there was nothing to do but wait, right? We were just on our way down and it was just a normal descent. It felt normal.”

Inside the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot donned their oxygen masks and opened their microphone, but “communication was a serious issue” between them and the flight attendants because of the noise, Homendy said. The pilots retrieved an emergency handbook kept secure next to the captain’s seat.

The co-pilot contacted air traffic controllers, declaring an emergency and saying the plane needed to immediately descend to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), the altitude where there is enough oxygen for everyone onboard to breathe.

“We need to turn back to Portland,” she said in a calm voice that she maintained throughout the landing.

In the cabin, the flight attendants’ immediate focus was on the five unaccompanied minors in their care and the three infants being carried on their parents’ laps.

“Were they safe? Were they secure? Did they have their seat belts on or their lap belts on? And did they have their masks on? And they did,” Homendy said.

Some passengers began sending messages on social media to loved ones. One young woman said on TikTok that she was certain the plane would nosedive at any second and she wondered how her death would affect her mother, worrying that she would never recover from the sorrow.

But she and others said the cabin remained surprisingly calm. One passenger, Evan Granger, who was sitting in front of the blowout, told NBC News that his “focus in that moment was just breathe into the oxygen mask and trust that the flight crew will do everything they can to keep us safe.”

“There were so many things that had to go right in order for all of us to survive,” Granger said.

Video taken by those on board showed flight attendants moving down the aisle checking on passengers. Through the hole, city lights could be seen flickering past.

Evan Smith, an attorney traveling on the plane, told reporters the descent and landing were loud but smooth. When the plane touched down at Portland International about 20 minutes after it departed, the passengers broke into applause. Firefighters came down the aisle to check for injuries, but no one was seriously hurt.

Homendy said that if the blowout had happened a few minutes later, after the plane reached cruising altitude, the accident might have become a tragedy.

Bartlett’s mind also keeps returning to the what-ifs.

“I’m glad that it is not any worse than it was — that’s all. I keep coming back to it,” she said. “Like, how lucky Jack got. That was his name, the kid who sat next to me. His name was Jack, and how lucky he was that he had a seatbelt on.”

On Sunday, a passenger’s cellphone that had been sucked out of the plane was found. It was still operational, having survived its plunge from the sky.

It was open to the owner’s baggage claim receipt.


Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP reporter Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and videographer Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.

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Twisted metal, rushing wind: A narrowly avoided disaster as jet’s wall rips away at 3 miles high