At least five people were hospitalized and a dozen more suffered minor injuries Tuesday when a China Airlines jumbo jet suddenly nosed down and plunged 32,000 feet toward the Pacific Ocean in two minutes, 500 miles northwest of San Francisco.
The left wing and tail section of the airliner--a Boeing 747 en route from Taipei, Taiwan, to Los Angeles with 243 passengers and a crew of 25 on board--were extensively damaged in its six-mile dive, but it made a safe emergency landing at San Francisco International Airport more than an hour later.
Immediately after disembarking, 15 of the passengers and two cabin attendants received emergency treatment for dizziness, nausea, headaches and neck strain.
Taken to Hospitals
Five of the injured were subsequently taken to hospitals, where four were released after treatment, and one was admitted with a possible spinal injury.
Uninjured passengers were shifted to other airlines to complete their trip to Los Angeles.
The mishap was originally attributed to a sudden wind sheer (rapid change in wind speed and direction) or clear air turbulence, but a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., later said the incident resulted from failure of all four of the airliner's engines.
Safety board spokesman Ira Furman said the No. 4 engine (the outer engine on the right wing) stopped first, and the airliner was descending steeply when the other three failed.
Furman refused to speculate about the cause of the failures or whether air turbulence could have been a contributing factor.
"They were in a descent that was apparently more rapid than it would have to be, based simply on losing engine power, and that's where we have to conduct an investigation on what happened," he said.
San Francisco International Airport spokesman Ronald Wilson said China Airlines Flight No. 6 had been uneventful until shortly before 11 a.m., when the airliner was at 41,000 feet and mid-morning brunch was being served in the cabin.
At that time, Wilson said, "the 747 went into a very sharp, steep and swift descent, spiraling violently to the left.
"During this descent, the airplane was subjected to extreme stress, and anyone who was not strapped down was thrown against the ceiling and the right hand side of the cabin.
"During descent, the pilot attempted to slow (the aircraft) by lowering his landing gear.
"But the doors of the landing gear were torn off, and parts of them evidently struck the left and right horizontal stabilizers, damaging them."
A spokesman for the safety board said a 10-foot section of the left stabilizer was torn off, and a 5-foot section of the right stabilizer was severed.
The left wing flap also was damaged, and the left wing was slightly distorted, the spokesman added.
Wilson said the pilot finally managed to slow his dive and regain control at 9,000 feet and contacted San Francisco, declaring an on-board emergency and asking clearance to land.
After landing, Capt. Mei Ho talked to the passengers, apologizing for "the inconvenience and discomfort," and telling them it was the first time in his career he had experienced such an incident.
"It was terrible," he said.
But the passengers expressed only gratitude and admiration for the pilot's handling of the situation.
"I had given up, when I looked out the window and saw the sea coming up at me so fast," said Harold Chom of Riverside, who said he makes frequent overseas flights.
"When we came out of it and then landed just like any ordinary landing, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Whatever they're paying the captain--it's not near enough!"
Passenger Alex Noll of Los Angeles said his reaction was much the same:
"I looked through the window and saw the sun below and the water up above," he recalled. "I said goodby to my wife and mentally gave away my belongings. I thought it was over. . . . "
Another Los Angeles resident, Seksan Caniyo, said he felt the airplane dive, level out for a moment, and then dive again.
"People were popping up like popcorn," he said.
And passenger James A. Blake of San Diego said he was grateful for his habit of keeping his seat belt buckled.
"The belt sign wasn't on," he said. "But I was belted down and when the dive began and I felt the thing holding me down I suddenly felt smart.
"By the time I finally got around to being scared, it was all over and we were flying straight and level again."
The airliner was later towed to the Pan American maintenance hangar at the airport for examination by safety board investigators.
Western Airlines Capt. Bob Records saw it there, and shook his head in wonder.
"It's amazing he was able to fly so long in that condition," he said.