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Passengers Aboard Stricken Jet Drew Support From Each Other

February 25, 1989

HONOLULU (AP) _ Flight attendants were just starting to serve beverages on Flight 811 to New Zealand when a calm flight turned into a nightmare of howling wind, flying debris and passengers blown into the night sky.

After landing safely Friday, surviving passengers recalled how they prayed, hugged and tried to console each other as the crippled plane returned to Honolulu with a gaping hole in its side.

″I was hugging the Japanese guy next to me when we landed. I didn’t even know who he was,″ said Laura Falci, an account executive from Chicago.

″I think the thing that sticks in my mind is how calm everyone was,″ said Peter Cobb of Adelaide, Australia.

The fuselage of the jumbo jet carrying 354 people ripped open shortly after takeoff Friday, and nine people were sucked from the plane 22,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

More than 200 passengers departed here Friday night aboard a United Airlines Boeing 747 flown in from Chicago, an airline spokesman said. Those who didn’t want to fly right away were put up in hotels.

Leanne Devlin, 23, of Sydney, Australia, was among those who decided to take the first flight home.

″I’m a bit jumpy about hopping back on, but there’s no other way to get home,″ said Miss Devlin, 23, of Sydney.

″I crashed in World War II twice, and I kept flying,″ said another passenger, John C. Tracey of San Antonio, Texas. ″You just have to.″

As they recounted the accident later, passengers described havoc and terror mixed with valor and compassion.

″One of the ladies who was up near the people who got sucked out came running back and was hysterical,″ said an 18-year-old man from Hawera, New Zealand, who declined to give his name. ″But I can understand why because she saw her brother get sucked out. She just went mad.″

″A very brave man bodily took her and tried to calm her down.″ said Beverley Nisbet of Hastings, New Zealand.

″They were just about to serve free drinks when it happened,″ said Ray Brooks of Auckland, New Zealand. ″We were sitting right next to the galley and I said, ‘Here come the free drinks.’ The next thing you know, wham-bam 3/8 No free drinks.″

John Morgan of Eugene, Ore., in a telephone interview with Eugene radio station KUGN, described the noise as ″kind of a big bang, kind of like a cyclone going through, this mad rushing of wind.″

″Of course, everything was flying around the cabin, from books to papers to glasses, you name it,″ said Morgan. ″Stewardesses were hanging on to everything they could get their hands on just to keep from blowing from one end of the cabin to the other.″

Other passengers held loved ones and prepared for the worst.

″I thought I was going to die,″ said Robert Molnar of Sydney, who was returning from a Hawaiian honeymoon with his wife, Helen. ″I made a comment to my wife that we’ve only been married for three weeks. What a way for it to end.″

Newton Betts of Lake Oswego, Ore., told Portland television station KATV, that he and his wife, Dee, clung to each other. They were sitting in the upper passenger deck above the hole on the lower deck.

″My immediate reaction was ... if the seat structure didn’t hold, we’d be out in the ocean and our chances for survival would be next to none,″ Betts said.

″Talking with other people sitting farther up in the plane, I realize how close we came to dying,″ said John Peryer of Hastings, New Zealand. ″I’m just thankful I’m back on the ground, but I’m sorry for the ones that didn’t make it.″

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