CNN, NTSB, KYLE RINKER, SAM MATTHEWS, SEAN BATES
By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
(CNN) — A Boeing 737 Max 9 earned its certificate of airworthiness on October 25, six days before it found its home with Alaska Airlines.
Over the next three months – before a terrifying midair blowout and emergency landing – it would fly more than 150 times. A few of those flights would tip off airline officials to a possible problem with the aircraft’s pressurization, a federal official later would say. It even would be restricted from traveling over the ocean – to Hawaii – in case such a warning appeared.
Still, nothing any ordinary passenger could notice would distinguish Friday’s Flight 1282 to Southern California, from any other. Nothing would signal the nationwide grounding of similar aircraft the plane would trigger just a few days into the new year. Indeed, nothing would foretell the terror this plane soon would hold in the sky above Portland, Oregon.
Emergency lights tested and reset
Some 37 days after it joined the Alaska Airlines fleet, an auto pressurization “fail light” in the Boeing 737 Max 9 lit up.
It happened again on January 3. Then, again on January 4.
Each time, the flight crew flipped a switch to the system’s backup, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy later said, describing the move as “very normal.”
“They flipped it, they reported it, it was tested by maintenance and then reset,” she explained.
Then Friday, 171 passengers and six crew members boarded the Alaska Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon, bound for Ontario, California, which took off at about 5:07 p.m, according to FlightAware. Among them were four unaccompanied minors.
Of the 220 passenger seats on the aircraft, just under 50 seats were empty, including seats 26A and 26B.
Abruptly after take off, a panel of the plane’s main body called the fuselage “plug door,” including a window, popped off and was sent flying into the air at 16,000 feet, a passenger told CNN.
With a boom, the fuselage plug – which looks like the typical interior of a commercial jet – blew off the plane, ripping headrests off seats and sucking items out of the aircraft, including a boy’s shirt which was ripped clean off his body, according to passenger accounts and video.
Unsure of what had just happened, some passengers screamed and cried and began drafting text messages to their loved ones, in case it was their last – all while a gush of air entered the plane and oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling.
Nick Hoch, a 33-year-old passenger, called the ordeal “traumatic,” “tense,” and “jarring,” in a phone interview with CNN.
“A mist or cloud whooshed past me that kind of hit me in the face,” he said. “People’s hair was flying all over the place.”
Feeling disoriented himself, he said it was clear others felt the same sense of fear. Hoch was on the left side of the plane, a few rows in front of where the panel blew off.
Miraculously, no passengers were assigned to 26A and 26B, the two plane seats right next to the plug door that blew off, Alaska Airlines confirmed.
Stephanie King, another passenger aboard the flight, was in an aisle seat in row 12 on the flight to her home in California and said she heard a load roar of wind.
Even though King was a few rows removed from 26A and 26B, she told CNN Saturday she “just knew that something bad had happened.”
“One of the ladies was screaming and crying,” King said. “She was inconsolable. She kept saying ‘My son! My son! He got his shirt ripped off!’ It was absolutely surreal.”
Emma Vu, another passenger, was asleep and woke up to a falling sensation and seeing emergency masks drop down, she told CNN. She apparently woke up after the panel section popped off; it wasn’t clear how close to the missing panel she was.
Vu texted her parents their code word for emergencies to let them know about the incident.
“I’ve never had to use it before, but I knew that this was that moment,” she said.
After a portion of the plane flew off, people appeared “remarkably calm” as they listened to instruction from the flight crew, Hoch said. But King says even though flight attendants were making announcements, because the plane was open, it was too loud for her to hear much of what was being said.
When the part blew out, “chaos” ensued, Homendy explained, relating a firsthand account from a flight attendant. Due to the change in pressure, the cockpit door came open and slammed into the lavatory door, she said. “The first officer lost her headset at that moment, it was pulled off. The captain had a portion of the headset pulled off,” and a laminated procedural checklist flew out into the cabin.
“We’d like to get down,” the pilot told air traffic control, according to a recording posted on liveatc.net. “We are declaring an emergency. We do need to come down to 10,000.”
Within 20 minutes of takeoff, Alaska Airlines flight 1282, did get down and landed safely.
One person was taken to the hospital, several were injured and required medical attention, but all have since been medically cleared.
Ripple effects of nationwide grounding continue to mount amid investigation
On Saturday, the FAA ordered all Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft to be grounded nationwide until they are carefully inspected.
Hundreds of flights from major airlines including Alaska and United have been canceled. Neither the airlines nor the FAA have indicated when the planes might return to service.
So far, 18 of Alaska’s 737-9 Max aircraft that were operating on Saturday after being inspected have again been pulled from service “until details about possible additional maintenance work are confirmed with the FAA,” the airline said.
Now, as the investigation into the incident continues, further complicating it is the loss of critical cockpit audio recordings because of a device setting, Homendy said.
The cockpit voice recorder, which captures sounds such as engine noises and pilots’ voices, was “completely overwritten.” The devices are currently only required to retain two hours of audio at a time, she explained in a news conference.
The refrigerator-size fuselage door plug was missing for a time, but was later found in the yard of a schoolteacher named Bob in Portland.
And although it’s unclear if there is any correlation between the warning lights and Friday’s incident, for the dozens of passengers aboard Alaska Airlines flight 1282, nothing about what they experienced on their flight was normal.
While the repeated pressurization alert is “very disconcerting to investigators,” who are looking into the issue with Boeing and Alaska Airlines, Homendy said, “it may have absolutely nothing to do with what occurred in the cabin of the aircraft during that event,” adding the light itself may be faulty.
Unanswered questions remain over previous warnings about the plane’s pressurization and whether other Boeing aircraft are safe to fly.
“Our focus right now is on this aircraft to determine what happened, how it happened and to prevent it from happening again,” Homendy said. “Once we determine that, we can see if there’s a greater concern that we want to issue an urgent safety recommendation for.”
NTSB officials will continue the painstaking examination of the interior of the plane and will recover and examine the detached door plug, Homendy said.
The supplier that makes the fuselage of Boeing’s 737 Max jets, Spirit AeroSystems, said it is working with Boeing on the issue. Alaska Airlines has also said it is working with Boeing to understand what happened.
CNN’s Paradise Afshar, Elizabeth Wolfe, Sara Smart, Sharif Paget, Pete Muntean and Raja Razek contributed to this report.
™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.