February 24, 1989 a day that would change the lives of 337 passengers and 18 crew members on board United Airlines Flight 811.
Operating Flight 811 from Honolulu International Airport to Auckland was a 19 year old Boeing 747-122 (N4713U), the 89th Jumbo Jet off the production line. The aircraft had set out earlier that day from New York, stopping in Los Angeles and Honolulu, before proceeding to Auckland and finally Sydney.
The cabin crew that night were led by Chief purser Laura Brentlinger, 38, who had been flying for 17-years. She assigned Edward Lythgoe, 37; Ricky Umehira, 35; Mae Sapolu, 38; Ilona Benoit, 48; Richard Lam, 41; and Sharol Preston, 39; all veteran flight attendants, positions in the forward part of the cabin.
Also working with them was AFT Purser Sarah Shanahan, 42; Curt Christensen, 34; John Horita, 44; Linda Shirley, 30; Robyn Nakamoto, 26; Tina Blundy, 36; Jean Nakayama, 37 and Darrell Blankenship, 28.
Christensen, who was assigned a position at the very rear of the cabin, had been called off standby earlier in the day for the red-eye flight. He had initially been employed by Pan American Airways in May 1978 but moved across to United when the airline took over Pan Am’s Pacific Division in 1985.
The jet took off at 01:52 local time from Honolulu International Airport, three minutes behind schedule. Thunderstorms in the area meant that the flight crew led by 35-year United veteran Captain David Cronin 59, had left the seatbelt signs on as the aircraft climbed away from the Hawaiian islands. Also in the flight deck was First Officer Gregory Slader, 48 and Flight Engineer Randal Thomas, 46.
Christensen unbuckled his harness and headed up the right aisle to the aft service centre. Tina Blundy, Jean Nakayama and Darrell Blankenship were already there preparing the drinks carts. John Horita was below deck, in the cargo-hold galley, sending up more carts in preparation for the meal service.
Meanwhile up front, Brentlinger, Umehira and Lythgoe congregated at the bottom of the Boeing 747’s iconic spiral staircase, near door 1-right.
Flight Attendants (FA’s) Benoit and Sapolu are already serving drinks to passengers in business class while Lam is prepping meals in the forward lower galley also known as ‘The Pit’.
Passengers were now beginning to settle in to their seats ready for the long night flight ahead and donned their eye shades and wrapped themselves in the blankets.
In the right aisle behind the last row in business class, Sapolu was hunting down a Diet Coke. In the first-class service bay, Lythgoe was on the phone asking Lam to send up more champagne.
In the aft galley there was the usual chatter and Christensen collected some ice and orange juice from the counter and placed it on his cart.
As the jumbo climbed through 22,000 feet the crew and passengers suddenly heard a loud “thump” which shook the aircraft. “What the hell was that?” Captain Cronin asked.
1.8 seconds later all hell broke loose. “We heard a tremendous explosion” Cronin later described, “and the craft violently reacted.”
Unbeknown to the crew and passengers the forward cargo door had blown off, with such force that it had bent over and slammed in to the side of the fuselage, ripping half of the cabin wall out with it. The ensuing explosive decompression caused the cabin floor to cave in and ten seats were ejected from the cabin, killing all eight passengers seated here and a passenger seated behind.
A gaping hole was left in the side of the aircraft through which flight attendant Mae Sapolu in the business-class cabin was almost blown out. Passengers and other crew members saw her clinging to a seat and were able to pull her back inside the cabin even though she was seriously injured.
Laure Brentlinger was making her way up the 747’s iconic spiral staircase when the decompression occurred and was left clinging on for her life. “I call it flag time, when I was hanging onto the rungs, and my feet were literally off the ground, hanging in mid-air,” she said. ″I was praying for my life, for the lives of the passengers, that we would get down safely.″
At the moment of the explosion, Christensen was facing forward, hands empty, standing partly in the aft service center. He collapsed into the right aisle.
In that instant, his senses record an indelible nightmare: “Immediately the air filled with a hazy smoke and flying debris. I felt a cold wind and sucking, if you will, but it wasn’t a sucking. It was like being in the middle of a huge cannon blast, a blast of cold air. There was grey, swirling smoke and debris flying everywhere.“
“Out of the corner of my eye, as I was being thrown down, I watched ceiling panels fall; door panels and side panels blew off. Big panels fell on people’s heads. It was like an implosion. Everything came down from the ceiling and the walls inward to us.”
″I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when her house gets picked up and everything gets blown away,″ purser Sarah Shanahan said in an interview to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin after the accident.
One word flashed through Christensen’s and the other crew members minds: Lockerbie.
Two months previously a Pan Am Boeing 747 had exploded over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground.
“I thought it was a terrorist bomb. I thought, `Oh, my God, how did they get us way out here in Hawaii?’ I thought we were goners” Christensen said.
“I knew we had an explosive decompression because there was lots of mist in the cockpit. We went for our oxygen masks but there was no oxygen” Captain Cronin said.
Indeed the explosion had severely damaged the on board emergency oxygen supply system which was located in the forward cargo sidewall area just behind the missing cargo door.
An emergency decent was initiated as the jet turned back towards Honolulu.
Debris ejected from the cabin during the decompression damaged the number 3 and 4 engine, so much so that engine 3 was shut down. The right wings leading edge and horizontal and vertical stabilisers were also damaged.
As the aircraft descended Captain Cronin asked Flight Engineer Thomas to tell the Flight Attendants to prepare for an emergency landing. Unable to contact them through the aircraft’s inter phone or PA system Thomas went in to the cabin to see what was happening.
The site that greeted him was beyond terrifying. The jets fuselage was peeled off all the way up to the upper deck and as he made his was down the spiral staircase he saw the large hole in the side of the cabin.
“When I went downstairs, I knew we had a serious problem,” Thomas said. “I looked outside … it was just like looking through a picture window. I could see the wing and both engines, at that time No. 4 was in flames.”
Christensen got to his feet and began to move forward. As instincts and training kicked in he started removing large sections of ceiling and wall panels from on top of passengers.
He spotted a dangling oxygen mask, grabbed it and inhaled a nauseating nicotine taste. He discarded the mask, and found he was able to breathe.
The explosive decompression lifted Ricky Lam off his feet and he landed on his back as he felt the plane ″go into a steep nosedive.″ He climbed up an emergency chute to the main cabin and said he had to crawl through ″all kinds of rubbish and debris″ and couldn’t see anything but yellow dust.
″I was thinking I was the only one left on the plane,″ he said. ″And then I stood up and saw the passengers.″
Communication between the flight attendants and passengers was very difficult because of the high ambient noise level in the cabin after the decompression, although the public address (PA) system was still operational. The crew used the aircrafts megaphones to shout commands to the passengers and communicate between each other.
Christiansen made his way to mid-cabin, then to business class. A horrified man was yelling and pointing to seats 14 G and H, the last row in the business- class section. He kept shouting over and over, “My wife! Go look for my wife!”.
Edward Lythgoe found himself dazed and confused and covered in hot coffee, hanging on to the stairwell with his colleagues Umehira and Brentlinger. After donning a life vest he made his way through the cabin. Waving a safety card, he signalled first-class passengers to don their life vests. He later described how everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Chief Purser Brentlinger roused a dazed and bloodied Benoit from beneath rubble and helped her to a seat. Badly injured, like many other passengers and crew she struggled to tighten the life vests two straps around her waist. Deadheading flight attendant Leonard Jenkins assisted her before managing to strap herself into jump seat 1-left.
Lythgoe returned for instructions. The noise was deafening. Brentlinger signalled and mouthed “sit down.” Crossing to the right side, he then strapped himself in 1-right, facing aft, staring out the hole.
A moonlit wing is to his left. The devastated remains of business class is to his right.
Fearing that the aircraft would be ditching in the Pacific Ocean, the cabin crew continued assisting injured passengers and colleagues and telling everyone to remain calm, read the safety card, tighten their seatbelts and put on their lifejackets. Indeed one flight attendant helped about 36 passengers don their life preservers. They also cleared debris away from the exit doors and aisles, closed the doors of the storage compartments above doors 2 left and 2 right and prepared the cabin for an emergency landing.
“The flight attendants had just done a tremendous job,” First Officer Thomas said. “Everyone was in their seats, wearing their life vests. I saw no panic at all.”
Christensen sat numb in jump seat 3-right, confronting death. Lythgoe visualised ocean water gushing in through the hole while going through the mental exercise of opening door 1-right.
Then, above the howling winds, a chorus of voices yelled: “City lights! City lights!”
For the crew their training kicked back in. For the first time, Shanahan and her colleagues realised the pilots still had control of the plane. ″People kept unfastening their seat belts and standing up to look out the windows,″ she said. ″I’m sure that they wanted the reassurance. They wanted to see those Honolulu city lights.”
She said she found three young men and assigned them to help with the evacuation upon landing, instructing them on how to open the emergency exit and deploy the inflatable slide, making them repeat the instructions back to her.
She said she told them, ″This is a critical job. They will pile up at the bottom of the slide. They will get badly injured. It is vital that you stay there.″
″And they did. God bless them. They did,″ Shanahan said.
Christensen located a flashlight, turned it on and gripped it tightly. With the light on, he knew he’d be able to find it after the landing, should he lose his grasp on it.
14 minutes after the explosion the stricken jet touched down at Honolulu International Airport. Immediately the crew initiated an emergency evacuation and within 45 seconds everyone was off the aircraft. Every flight attendant suffered some injury during the evacuation ranging from scratches to a dislocated shoulder, yet they performed their role with heroic grace.
Despite air and sea searches no remains of the nine victims were ever found. The fatalities were: Anthony and Barbara Fallon, Harry and Susan Craig, Lee Campbell, Dr. John Crawford, John Swan, Rose Harley and Mary Handley-Desso.
Horrifyingly small body fragments and pieces of clothing were found in the number 3 engine meaning at least one of the victims were ingested by the engine.
A year later only three of the 16 crew had returned to the skies. Most of the crew who worked to protect the remaining 327 passengers in the howling wind of the planes darkened cabin had not been able to return to work, either because of physical or psychological problems. Some never took to the skies again.
The crew were later awarded the Heroism Award by then US Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner saying the flight attendants overcame “the deafening, hurricane-like winds that swept through the cabin” as they helped passengers deal with the crisis over the Pacific.
However some of the FA’s interviewed after the tragedy were critical of the the state of aviation safety and accused United Airlines of cutting back in training and safety equipment, something the airline vehemently denied.
Edward Lythgoe who suffered two broken ribs in the incident returned to work over a year later and told of how he still reacted with newfound anxiety whenever a plane got into turbulence and during landing and takeoff.
Flight Attendant Darrell Blankenship of Seattle, who accepted the award with his arm still in a cast, said a flying liquor cart jammed into him during the flight.
Blankenship and Lythgoe both said passengers and some flight attendants had difficulty putting on life vests, which Lythgoe said he thought were badly designed.
Sharol Preston said not enough oxygen bottles or enough megaphones, needed to communicate with passengers above the roar caused by the hole, were readily available to flight attendants.
Sarah Shanahan refused to return to work until United improved its training for emergencies saying the airline ″watered down″ safety procedures and training over the years.
Ms. Shanahan, who at the time had been flying for 22 years, said attendants used to have to undergo three days of retraining each year, including an open-book test, but now have only an eight-hour session.
″It makes it more difficult because you have to fly by the seat of your pants,″ she said. ″The corporation doesn’t seem to think safety is cost- effective.″
Flying still remains one of the safest forms of transport. But even all these years after the flight attendants spoke out about the safety issues on Flight 811, many crew still question the corners airlines, aircraft manufacturers and aviation authorities cut to try and cut costs.
The 747 involved would return to the skies for United Airlines just seven months after the disaster, before eventually being retired by the carrier in January 1997. She was then purchased by Gambian millionaire Babani Sissoko to be the flagship for his Air Dabia operation before being permanently grounded in 2003.
Most of the passengers and even many of the crew she would go on to carry would have no clue of the jets earlier brush with disaster and the heroic efforts of the 15 crew members, 1 off duty FA and 3 pilots that fateful night.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air.