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‘Didn’t Know . . . We Still Had a Pilot’ : 13 Minutes of Terror: Calm Amid Jet Crisis

Times Staff Writer

Jim Kilgariff remembers hearing a deafening roar, seeing the sky and wondering for five awful minutes whether there was still a pilot aboard Flight 243.

The Waikiki businessman had been looking forward to a nap on the 45-minute flight home from rainy Hilo.

He chose a window seat over the right wing and “was just relaxing” when the Boeing 737 ripped open 24,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean on Thursday afternoon.

Kilgariff, 62, who was two rows behind the damaged part of the cabin and escaped with minor injuries, calmly recounted his ordeal Saturday.

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“I heard the blast--really, it was more like a whomping sound,” he recalled.

Tremendous Rush of Air

Suddenly, there was a tremendous rush of air, and “all this trash came flying at me. Stuff got into my eyes and I couldn’t see.” He could hear nothing but the roar of the wind.

Instinctively, Kilgariff tucked his head between his knees and began mentally rehearsing what he would do when the jet went down.

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“The plane was out of control for the first five minutes, sort of yawing back and forth,” he said.

He raised his head a little and squinted through burning eyes.

“All I could see was sky,” he said.

“I didn’t even know if we still had a pilot.”

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For 13 terrifying minutes, Kilgariff, who lost a brother in a plane crash several years ago, meticulously plotted his own survival.

“I managed to get my life vest on and squinted at the exit next to me. I didn’t expect my mind to be working so cool, but I was really calm and collected.

“I was very concerned about that exit window because I knew it would be my responsibility to open it.”

The stranger next to him put her hand on his knee, and Kilgariff patted it.

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“Later on, when we got off, she said: ‘I just wanted to see if you were still there.’ Because you couldn’t tell. The noise was so bad, and you had to keep your eyes closed because of the wind. I had fiberglass in my eyes.”

After the plane stopped pitching, Kilgariff squeezed his eyes open again.

“I peeked out and could see mountains, so I knew we were going to land. I felt the pilot coming in.

‘Smoothest Landing’

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“It was the smoothest landing I ever had.”

At first, he said, the stunned passengers didn’t even realize they were on the ground.

Emergency crews appeared and began yelling at people to make their way to the back of the plane and get off.

Kilgariff picked up his briefcase from under the seat in front of him--"I guess I probably had my feet on it"--and picked his way through the cluttered aisle.

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“A stewardess was lying in the aisle, and I had to step over the life raft. All the wires from overhead were dangling and everything from the overhead baggage thing was all over.

“But everyone was so calm. There was no panic.

“That woman co-pilot (Mimi Tompkins)--I watched her trying to help the firemen evacuate the seriously injured and she was something! Everybody was fabulous.”

Kilgariff stood on the runway as one of the surviving stewardesses took a head count. “I was No. 87,” he said.

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7 Still Hospitalized

Of the 89 passengers aboard, seven remained hospitalized Saturday. One of the five crew members--flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing--was sucked out of the airplane. Her body has not been found.

“I really, really feel bad about that stewardess,” Kilgariff said. “She was so delightful. I had had her on several of my flights to Hilo.”

Kilgariff called his wife from the hospital and told her about his afternoon.

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“She was at work--she hadn’t heard anything,” he said, “but she was calm.”

Another passenger, Stanford Samson, had just bought a beer and was reading a book on computer software when the plane broke open.

“That’s what made me mad,” the 45-year-old Hawaiian Telephone Co. supervisor recalled Saturday.

Beer and Book Gone

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“I paid a dollar for that beer. I just took one sip and it was gone. So was my book.”

When he looked up and “saw blue skies,” Samson’s first thought was: “Oh God, this is the way I’m going to die.”

” . . . I thought about my wife and five kids,” Samson said. “I thought we were going to hit the ocean.”

The plane was “bouncing all over the place and there was a fear that the front section would rip apart and the plane would split in two and then it would be aloha,” he said.

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Samson told the frightened strangers on either side of him to relax, again and again, during those 13 hellish minutes that “seemed like hours” before the plane landed.

“When I saw how close the ground was, I knew he was going to take it in, but I didn’t know if the plane would break apart on the ground or what,” Samson said.

Feared Explosion

Safe on the ground, Samson still feared that the plane might explode.

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Samson praised the crew’s heroic actions and regrets not having had a chance to talk to the pilot, Capt. Robert Schornstheimer.

“I would have grabbed him and kissed him,” Samson said.

On the way to the hospital after the safe landing, Samson began to shake. Doctors tended his bruises and fractured finger and sent him back to the hotel where other survivors were gathering.

“It took me about four beers to calm down,” Samson said.

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Aloha Airlines sent Kilgariff and other ambulatory passengers to the hotel, but Kilgariff decided not to spend the night on Maui, but instead to take Aloha’s 8:30 p.m. flight back to Oahu.

Why So Late?

“I called up a customer in Maui and invited him to dinner. He wanted to know why in the hell I was calling so late,” Kilgariff said.

Over a pot of tea in the hotel bar, Kilgariff chatted with his friend. “I saved myself a trip to Maui,” he joked.

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Kilgariff said five other survivors joined him on the flight home.

“We all sat in the back of the plane,” he said. “Every one of us.”

Back home, he found himself briefly the target of a police investigation into the incident. Authorities at first were uncertain whether the plane had been sabotaged--a possibility that since then has been all but ruled out.

Because Kilgariff’s name had been badly misspelled on the manifest, authorities demanded to know why he had boarded the plane without reservations.

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“Maui police interviewed me three times. Once on the runway, at the hospital and then back home,” Kilgariff said.

Explains Error

He explained the error and bears no grudge.

“They were just doing a good job,” he said.

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Samson’s wife and eldest daughter flew to Maui to accompany him on his trip home.

The flight home, Samson says, was his last.

“I don’t think I want to fly again,” he said.

Kilgariff, however, said he doesn’t fear flying again.

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“It’s funny. I was once in a wind shear and dropped 10,000 feet on a United flight, and I was kind of shaky after that.

“And my brother was an experimental test pilot who was killed in a crash at Edwards Air Force Base in California. For two years after that, I would get on a plane but just sweat. My hands would sweat.”

But after surviving Flight 243, Kilgariff said, he has a simple view of flying:

“No problem.”

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