They Waited for Death, Then Deliverance! : UNITED AIRLINES FLIGHT 811

Times Staff Writers

Beverage service was about to begin on board United Airlines Flight 811. As the roomy Boeing 747 climbed skyward early Friday, Beverley Nisbet settled back, reflecting on her Hawaiian vacation and preparing for the long journey home to Hastings, New Zealand.

Suddenly, she heard "a muffled explosion." Then the wall of the plane blew away, taking several rows of passengers along with it.

"Debris was flying everywhere," recalled Nisbet, 50. "My initial reaction was: 'This was it. I'm not going home.' "

Heard Loud Pop

Down the aisle, Sherry Peterson of Denver heard a loud pop--like the noise "a paper bag makes when you pop it"--as a gaping hole was punched in the jumbo jet's thick flank. Travelers seated just two feet from her moments earlier were gone. The suction even pulled her earrings off.

David Birell was jarred awake by the blast. Opening his eyes, he saw an oxygen mask dangling in front of his face. His wife, Lenore, placed her pillow over their daughter's eyes: "I thought we would land in the sea. I thought we would drown."

As the deafening roar of the wind filled the cabin, the jumbo jet plunged from 20,000 to 4,000 feet. But remarkably, passengers remained calm, frozen, no doubt, by shock and the fear of what lay ahead.

They strapped on their life vests. They hugged each other. They gripped the armrests. They prayed.

And they waited.

Forty minutes later, Capt. David Cronin brought the wounded craft down at Honolulu International Airport as emergency crews looked on.

"There was a roar of applause," passenger Bruce Lampert, a Denver attorney, said. "I can tell you, that was a long flight back."

Shocked and drained, surviving passengers of Flight 811 recounted their horrifying ordeal above the Pacific on Friday, describing in graphic, chilling detail what many believed were there final moments.

Praise for Pilot

There was hearty praise for the pilot, who returned the disabled plane on two of its four engines, and obvious expressions of relief.

But many shaken passengers vowed never to fly again.

"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. "You cannot comprehend what it's like sitting for half an hour, waiting to die. Which way are you going to go? Are you going to drown? Are you going to die in a crash-landing?"

Brenda, who was sitting in the business-class section where the fuselage was torn away, said: "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."

Many passengers said they believed explosives had damaged the plane, and several expected a second blast to rip through the fuselage at any moment and send the plane tumbling downward through the darkness, into the sea.

"I thought it might have been a bomb and I was waiting for another one," Nisbet said. "I think there was a certain amount of relief, if you can call it that, when the plane still seemed to be going on and on."

Watched Seats 'Fly Out'

Tony Ryan, 31, a Sydney toy salesman, said he was just settling in, when the right side of the plane gave way and he watched several rows of seats "fly out the window."

John Kennedy, 21, also of Sydney, was seated in row 49. He said he saw the right engine start into sparks as debris was blown into it. Later, "the whole engine became engulfed in flame."

"It was like a meteor," Kennedy said. "That's when I thought I was going to die."

Kennedy, like many of the passengers aboard the plane, planned to leave Hawaii on a flight late Friday night. He was not thrilled with the prospect.

"I'm really nervous about flying back home," Kennedy said. "That'll be 12 hours of hell. When something like this happens, your whole life just flashes before your eyes . . . parents, girlfriends, friends, things in your life, things you've seen."

Eunice Brooks, 49, and her husband, Raymond, 54, both of Auckland, were seated on the left side of the plane, in row 16.

Mrs. Brooks said she heard a noise and believed "it was the drink trolley hitting the bulkhead." But "when we ended up wearing a window frame around our neck, I knew that wasn't it."

"We heard a bang," Brooks said. "A lot of seats on our side were bent and twisted so badly we found it hard to get out of the plane after we landed. People tried yelling but you couldn't hear each other. It was like talking down a long tunnel. You could see people's mouths moving but you couldn't hear them."

After the blast, Brooks said most of the passengers were forced to duck debris from ceiling panels and one of the lavatories, which broke apart in flight.

'Giant Wind Tunnel'

Bits of fiberglass formed a chalky dust that swirled around the cabin, which was like "a giant wind tunnel," Ryan said.

Gary Garber of Los Angeles, who was hospitalized with broken fingers and other injuries, said the explosion was "like a dream." He was seated in the center aisle, next to his wife, when "there was an explosion."

Suddenly, "the people who were sitting adjacent to us next to the window . . . were blown out of the plane . . . We were about 18 inches from flying out the plane. We just hung on for dear life until the pilot made it back."

Although most passengers remained calm, survivors said there was some screaming and shouting in the front of the plane.

One young girl, who was seated near the hole and was bleeding profusely, became hysterical after the blast. Australian Martin Bastock said he and several other passengers took her to a seat away from the open-air section and attempted to calm her.

"All the other people sitting in (her section of the plane) were just gone," Bastock said.

Samantha Moore, 24, a government aide from Easton, Md., said she was dozing when "a swooshing noise" awakened her.

"Panels were flying off the inside of the plane. I thought I was going to die. I put my belt on, got my life jacket on," Moore said in an interview at the Prince Kuhio Hotel, where many of the survivors assembled while awaiting other flights to their various destinations.

Moore praised the crew as "just amazing. One hostess just stood there with the wind pulling at her telling us what to do, telling us to be calm. It helped a lot. She said: 'Bend over, grab your ankles.' For some reason that was comforting. It showed that someone was in control."

Kenneth Still of San Rafael was going to his native land of New Zealand for a vacation. He said that despite the horror, most passengers remained calm and aided those in need.

'Helped Each Other'

"It was shattering, but . . . the people were tremendous the way they helped each other, handing out life vests, helping put them on. You don't know how much courage people have until something like that happens," Still said.

Ingrid Dietrich, 23, of Newmarket, N. H., agreed. "The one good thing is how close it made us all," she said.

The flight, which originated in San Francisco, was carrying 336 passengers and 19 crew members to Auckland and Sydney, when a 10-by-20 foot chunk of the fuselage was ripped away about 20 minutes after takeoff. Nine people were missing and presumed dead, and 18 passengers were treated at local hospitals, mostly for minor injuries.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Robert Feldman and his wife, Edith, were figuring luck was with them Friday. The couple, who hail from Philadelphia, were headed for an insurance agents conference in Sydney and had booked seats on Flight 811.

But at the last moment, Robert Feldman's employer, Massachusetts General Life Insurance, put him on another plane.

Despite the twist of fate, Feldman took a decidedly nonchalant attitude about it all in an interview at LAX. "It happens," he said of the tragedy off Honolulu. "We do a lot of flying."

Continue Their Journey

In the early evening hours, about 200 of Flight 811's passengers began to board a special 747 that United had flown to Honolulu to allow them to continue their journey to Auckland and Sydney.

There was decided ambivalence.

Roger White, 23, a television news anchorman in Newcastle, Australia, said he wasn't worried.

"It's a 10 million-to-1 chance that it will happen again," he said. Then he added: "But there is still that '1' factor that keeps you a little nervous."

John Kennedy's father, Melbourne surgeon Jack Kennedy, headed for the gate at the final boarding call and smiled to reporters.

"Well, here we go again," he said.

Missing was Nancy Gentry, 58, of South Bend, Ind., who had been headed to Auckland to see her son. She had no intention of flying again so soon.

"It really got to me," she said earlier. "The doctor says I can't leave for two days. I know I have to fly in order to get out of here, but I don't know whether to fly to Auckland or to fly back home."

Staff writer Eric Malnic in Honolulu contributed to this story. Ron Harris reported from Honolulu and Jenifer Warren from Los Angeles.

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