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Passengers: Others Inches Away Were Gone

February 25, 1989

HONOLULU (AP) _ Some passengers looked up to see rows of seats and people near them suddenly gone. One man saw sky. A woman’s earrings were ripped off by the wind.

Moments after a huge hole opened in the fuselage of a United Airlines Boeing 747 jet Friday, nine people were missing, debris was flying, oxygen masks were released, and a loud roar filled the cabin.

But, remarkably, passengers on Flight 811 stayed calm, many aboard said.

″All of a sudden it was like a dream - a section of the plane wasn’t there any longer,″ Gary Garber told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the emergency room of a Honolulu hospital.

″We heard a hissing noise and then noise from the explosion, if you want to call it that. Then we put our heads down. A moment later, we put our heads up and I could see where the seats used to be and the people weren’t there,″ said Garber, of Tarzana, Calif.

Passenger Lynoor Birrell, of Wellington, New Zealand, said she was about six to eight feet from the hole in the fuselage. She looked up and saw that three rows of seats were gone.

″There were seats just gone. There were people sitting there,″ she said.

At least 27 passengers were taken to hospitals for treatment, authorities said. It was not immediately known what caused the hole to blow open.

The plane left Honolulu International Airport with 336 passengers and 18 crew members at 1:34 a.m. for Auckland, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia. It returned 59 minutes later with a 10-by-40 foot vertical hole in the forward baggage area on the right side of the airliner.

Some of the passengers who survived planned to take a special United flight to New Zealand on Friday night.

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

Garber and his wife were seated in the business class section of the plane. Some of his fingers were broken but his wife was uninjured.

″The aisle seats right adjacent to us are what got hit. We were about 18 inches from flying out the plane ourselves,″ Garber said.

Rochelle Perel, 48, of Beverly Hills, Calif., also was sitting next to the seats that blew away.

″They were just starting cocktail service and there was kind of a hissing sound, like air and then a tearing away of the plane. It didn’t sound like an explosion,″ Perel said. ″It sounded more like the plane coming apart and a large section of the aircraft on the right side just blew away with the passengers in those seats with it.″

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.″

Newton Betts of Lake Oswego, Ore., told Portland television station KATU, 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.

Koji Yamamoto, 23, of Osaka, Japan, said he saw the sky and could ″feel the wind. The roof was breaking. Something was blowing toward us.″

Yamamoto was traveling with three friends and was seated in the middle of the plane. He said he put his head between his kees after he heard the noise.

Beverley Nisbet, 50, of Hastings, New Zealand, was returning home from a trip to Britain and Hawaii.

″The hostesses had announced they would be bringing drinks around, and at that moment, I heard a muffled explosion and the wall blew away,″ she said. ″Debris was everywhere. My initial reaction was ’This was it. I’m not going home.‴

″I thought it might be a bomb and I was waiting for a second one to finish us off,″ she said.

She said everyone put on their life jackets. One girl became hysterical, but the passengers were ″remarkably calm,″ Nisbet said.

Passenger Bruce Lampert of Denver said, ″There was explosive decompression. The masks came down. There was a lot of debris flowing through the cabin.

″I heard a large rushing of noise. The plane made a rapid descent. I can tell you that was a long flight back,″ he said.

When passengers saw land ″there was a roar of applause,″ he said.

He said he saw one woman with a severe neck cut, bleeding all over her blouse.

Max Thompson, of Denver, said his wife, Sherry Peterson, was in the plane’s business section, but wasn’t hurt. She talked to him by telephone, he said.

He said his wife told him that she was in an aisle seat just a row or two from where the hole was blown in the fuselage.

″She said it was like a very loud pop, like you would pop a paper bag,″ Thompson said, adding, ″It even sucked her earrings off.″