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JetBlue Fliers Try Again -- With Feeling

Times Staff Writer

Martine Hughes, a 26-year-old Pasadena woman with a longtime fear of flying, began to cry as soon as she stepped onto this New York-bound airliner Thursday morning.

One of the 139 passengers on a crippled airliner forced to make an emergency landing Wednesday after a three-hour ordeal above the skies of Los Angeles, Hughes almost backed out Thursday when she heard before boarding that her new plane might have to refuel in Oklahoma City.

“I didn’t want to get on a plane that had any issues,” she said.

Her mother didn’t take it well when Hughes called to say she was trying again.

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“I can’t believe you’re doing that to me again,” her mother said.

A JetBlue flight attendant hugged Hughes and told her everything was going to be fine.

“We’ll get you to New York,” the flight attendant said. “This is really safe.”

It was a rocky rite of passage for some of the 12 passengers who caught Flight 294 from Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport, at JetBlue’s expense, to redo the flight that 16 hours earlier had threatened to end in disaster.

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The white-knuckle landing at Los Angeles International Airport, with the nose landing gear locked askew, was watched by millions on TV.

On Thursday, before they even left the house, Sam and Janel Meza had to reassure their crying and screaming granddaughter, Savanna.

“Papa, we don’t want you to go,” the 6-year-old told her 55-year-old grandfather before he and his wife left their Mission Hills home for the Burbank airport, a drive they’d made the day before.

“It’s deja vu,” Janel Meza had said as she lugged her bag toward gate A8, the same place she had boarded Flight 292 the day before. “I didn’t think we’d be here. I thought we’d be shopping in Manhattan and eating in a deli.”

Instead, she and 11 other passengers found themselves confronting anxiety caused by Wednesday’s aborted flight.

“I wish I could tell you I’m a man of faith and steel, but I’m human,” Sam Meza, pastor of Living Hope Community Church in Mission Hills, said as he took his seat in the first row. “I’m nervous.”

In the second row, Deborah Williams, a New York entertainment marketing executive, trembled and wept as she waited for the plane to depart.

She’d spent a sleepless night at her daughter’s Burbank home, replaying in her mind the Wednesday flight that many passengers feared would end in disaster.

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When that plane was about to make its emergency landing, Williams grabbed her cellphone and called her boyfriend. She told him -- in case she didn’t survive -- to tell her daughters, her family and his family that she loved them all.

“I just heard him say, ‘It’s going to be fine,’ ” she recalled.

Now, she was ready to test fate again. “I guess I didn’t think it was going to be as emotional as it is, sitting here, conjuring up yesterday,” Williams said. “There are some familiar faces here. Seeing those people, it’s comforting. Situations like that bring out the best in people.”

One brief encounter on the Wednesday flight stood out, Williams said. As she and a fellow passenger were waiting to use the airliner’s restroom while the plane cruised, waiting for the right time to land, their eyes locked.

“Do you have faith?” he asked.

“I do,” she answered.

When the plane touched down gently and came to a stop, the passengers erupted into applause and “hugged like we’d known each other forever,” Williams said.

As Thursday’s pilot prepared for takeoff and the engines began to roar, Janel Meza grabbed her husband, pressed her head into his shoulder and closed her eyes. Sam Meza sat silently, tapping his right foot.

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“I’m just reflecting on everything that happened yesterday,” he said.

Soon, the plane was in the sky, its engine whining a bit too loudly for Janel Meza’s comfort. Every noise seemed to conjure up memories.

“Did you hear that thumping? What is that, Sam?” she asked.

Hughes said the one thing that bothered her was the beep that echoed through the plane whenever the pilot turned the “fasten seat belt” symbol on or off.

“Yesterday, when we heard that beep, it was followed by news,” she said.

About 40 minutes after takeoff, most passengers appeared to have calmed down. The Mezas snacked on pretzel mix and sipped from cans of Diet Coke. But Williams continued to cry and wipe at her eyes with tissue.

“I’m traumatized, no question,” she explained. “I live for my two girls.”

JetBlue made arrangements for all of Wednesday’s passengers to catch any flight they wanted. Many also took the airline up on its offer of free hotel rooms. Fifty-seven of them boarded a late-night flight just hours after the emergency landing, arriving in New York early Thursday.

Time seemed to calm the nerves of those who took Flight 294 out of Burbank on Thursday. About an hour into the flight, Sam Meza was sound asleep. His wife watched television news shows similar to those that had alerted her and other passengers to the gravity of the troubled flight the day before.

Sam Meza said he thought Wednesday’s ordeal would make him a better person. When he learned that the plane had a problem, he said, he turned to his wife of 35 years and apologized for anything he may have ever said or done that hurt her. Surviving the emergency landing together brought them closer, the Mezas said.

Thursday morning, Meza’s brother called from Ohio and said it was time for them to mend their relationship. They hadn’t spoken in five years.

“He told me he loved me,” Meza said.

Meza plans to address a church in a Bronx neighborhood on Sunday, the purpose of the couple’s trip. He said his message would be that it’s important for everyone to have their lives and relationships in order, because you never know what might happen.

“It changes you. It really does,” Janel Meza said of the experience.

The Mezas said they had prayed aloud for much of the three-hour ordeal.

“I was praying. I was singing. I didn’t care if anyone heard us,” the pastor’s wife said.

On Thursday, as the plane approached New York, the scene was quieter. Janel Meza was chewing gum to pop her ears. She and her husband held hands.

The plane landed loudly, but was cruising the runway within moments.

The Mezas and other passengers from Wednesday’s flight were greeted by JetBlue personal caretakers at JFK. The airline employees held white placards with the passengers’ names written in red ink. They helped them locate luggage, gave them bags with fruit, snacks and water, and offered them free transportation anywhere in the city.

The passengers were told that the flight was on JetBlue and were offered vouchers to use in New York restaurants and for future JetBlue flights.

“They’re treating us like royalty,” Sam Meza said, beaming.

There was another reason to smile. Now, they could call Savanna and tell her they had made it to New York.


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