By Nouran Salahieh, Paradise Afshar, Pete Muntean and Joe Sutton, CNN
(CNN) — Federal investigators are searching for the missing piece of an Alaska Airlines aircraft’s fuselage that blew off as they try to find out what led to a horrifying midair ordeal that resulted in the nationwide grounding of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft and a slew of flight cancellations.
No passengers were seated directly next to the section of the plane that blew off, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said Saturday.
“It’s fortunate that nobody died and there were not more serious injuries,” Homendy told CNN after touring the aircraft. Investigators were preparing to interview the flight crew, she said.
Homendy asked for the public’s help locating the “plug door” and other components from the aircraft that fell off during flight.
“We believe, from looking at radar data, that the door is around Barnes Road near I-217 in the Cedar Hills neighborhood. If you find that please, please contact local law enforcement,” Homendy said.
Cedar Hills is in Washington County, a little over 7 miles west of Portland.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said Sunday on X deputies are aware of the NTSB information and “the possibility that the @AlaskaAir Flight 1282 door may have fallen in our area. At this time, we have not been asked to coordinate any specific search and have not gotten any calls from the public regarding possible found debris.”
Locating the missing part will provide key clues as to why it separated from the airplane, Homendy said.
“If it’s sitting in somebody’s backyard, I would like to see it,” she added.
The refrigerator-sized hole that suddenly opened up on the aircraft carrying 177 people from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California, Friday sent panic throughout the plane as the cabin depressurized, oxygen masks descended and passengers screamed and texted their goodbyes. The plane landed safely with no serious injuries reported, authorities said.
The ordeal resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to temporarily ground certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft until they are carefully inspected. Boeing has faced a string of setbacks in recent years, most notably a 2019 grounding in dozens of countries following two tragic crashes.
Alaska Airlines said Saturday night that emergency inspections of its fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes “will take more time,” warning flight disruptions will likely continue.
The airline said it had canceled 160 flights — affecting roughly 23,000 travelers — as of Saturday afternoon, and more cancellations could be in store for Sunday.
“We are identifying necessary cancellations for tomorrow and expect the disruption to last through at least mid-week,” the airline said in the statement.
United Airlines also said it’s suspending services on all its Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft and “working with the FAA to clarify the inspection process and the requirements for returning all MAX 9 aircraft to service.” United said it has 79 of the aircraft in its fleet.
In the meantime, investigators are beginning to dig into the Alaska plane’s maintenance records, among other components, as they look into the mishap.
On Tuesday, Boeing is scheduled to hold an all-employee meeting at its 737 Max factory in Renton, Washington, “focused on safety” and the company’s response to the accident, Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun said in a company-wide email.
“It is critical for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand and address the causes of the event and to ensure they don’t happen again,” Calhoun said in the email.
Seat headrests were blown off
Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 had reached 16,000 feet after taking off from Portland when the chaos unfolded. The plane was airborne for only about 20 minutes, according to the flight-tracking site FlightAware.
With a boom, the fuselage plug – which looks like the typical interior of a commercial jet from inside the airplane – blew off the plane, sucking items out the aircraft, according to video and passenger accounts.
Some planes have an intentional opening that can be covered with a plug or an emergency door, depending on the seating configuration ordered by the airline.
Miraculously, no one was sitting in 26A and 26B, the two plane seats right next to the plug door that blew off, Homendy said Saturday night. Alaska Airlines confirmed that no passengers were assigned to those seats.
The force of the sudden depressurization of the passenger cabin ripped headrests and cushions off seats, Homendy told CNN.
The back of the seat on 26A is completely gone, as are the headrests from seats 25A and 26A, Homendy said. Clothes were also scattered in the area.
Seat assemblies are twisted, Homendy said, oxygen masks are dangling, and there is a piece of clothing caught up in the hole by the missing door plug that separated from the airplane.
“The video looks very calm, but I’m sure it was completely chaotic and very loud,” Homendy said.
What also prevented a more disastrous outcome was that it happened before the plane reached cruising altitude, when passengers typically begin unbuckling and walking around, Homendy said.
Still, the incident spread panic on the plane.
Passenger Nick Hoch, 33, described hearing a “boom” before the plane “jolted.” “We had our oxygen masks fall from the top and we put those on immediately, but it was a disorienting experience,” Hoch told CNN on Saturday.
Hoch said he was sitting on the left side of the plane, a few rows in front of where the panel blew off and “a mist or cloud whooshed past me that kind of hit me in the face.”
“There were people much closer who I spoke with who lost AirPods out of their ears,” he said.
Several guests onboard the plane required medical attention due to injuries, and all “have now been medically cleared,” Alaska Airlines said in Saturday night’s statement.
“I imagine this was a pretty terrifying event,” Homendy said. “We don’t often talk about psychological injury, but I’m sure that occurred here.”
Alaska Airlines said it was working with Boeing to understand what happened on Flight 1282.
The Boeing 737 MAX 9 involved in Friday’s incident has been in service for about three months and has flown about 150 times since October 2023, according to FlightAware and Federal Aviation Administration records.
Alaska Airlines said it inspected 18 of the Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes in its fleet Saturday and returned those to service, but hours later, reversed course and said those aircraft would be removed “until details about possible additional maintenance work are confirmed with the FAA.”
Final texts to loved ones
Stephanie King told CNN she was in an aisle seat in row 12 on the flight to her home in California when she heard a loud roar of wind.
“I just knew that something bad had happened,” she told CNN by phone Saturday.
King said flight attendants made announcements, but because the plane was open, it was too loud for her to hear much of what was being said.
Several passengers closer to the hole in the plane were frantic and moved to empty seats away from the incident, King told CNN.
“One of the ladies was screaming and crying. She was inconsolable. She kept saying, ‘My son! My son! He got his shirt ripped off!’” King said. “It was absolutely surreal.”
Fearing for her safety, King took out her phone to record video and draft final text messages to her loved ones.
“I drafted some text messages to my boyfriend and my mom to say something was going on, that I was scared and I love them,” she said.
Boeing’s 737 MAX jets had previous issues
According to Alaska Airlines, in the days before the incident, pilots had filed several reports of warning lights that indicated a loss of some cabin pressure and the plane was restricted from long-distance flights over water as a result, The Seattle Times reported.
Homendy told CNN she is aware that there were pressurization issues with the plane prior to the incident, and investigators will be asking what Alaska Airlines mechanics did to rectify them. She said investigators also plan to review the onboard aircraft maintenance records. Alaska Airlines has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
After the FAA ordered the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft in light of the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing said the company supported the FAA’s decision.
“Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers,” Boeing said in a statement.
“We agree with and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane.”
The latest grounding comes after a series of setbacks for Boeing.
Boeing’s engineering and quality problems have posed major challenges for the company. The crashes of two of 737-8 MAX jets that killed all 346 people on board the flights led to a crippling 20-month grounding of the plane.
The Max returned to the air carrying passengers in most markets around the globe beginning in late December 2020. But it has encountered other problems, including in April when Boeing said it has discovered a manufacturing issue with some 737 MAX aircraft after a supplier used a “non-standard manufacturing process” during the installation of two fittings in the rear fuselage – although Boeing insisted the problem did not constitute a safety risk.
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CNN’s Sara Smart, Jillian Sykes, Sharif Paget, Raja Razek, Eva Rothenberg and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.