Passenger describes 'free fall' onboard United jet

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A United Airlines jetliner flying to Los Angeles from Dulles airport hit severe turbulence while flying over Kansas, injuring 30 and jolting one woman out of her seat so forcefully that she left a crack when she hit the side of the cabin.
By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deborah Atwood was soaked and shaken up -- but glad to be in one piece -- after experiencing what she described as a "free fall" on a United Airlines flight Tuesday night.

Atwood, a resident of Northwest Washington, was one of 255 passengers on the jetliner that departed Dulles International Airport headed for Los Angeles and experienced turbulence that injured 21 people.

"All I could think of was the final scene in 'Thelma & Louise,' " Atwood said Wednesday, referring to the end of the 1991 movie when the two title characters fly off a cliff in a vintage convertible. "It was very scary."

(Discuss: Share your scary travel stories)

The National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation into the incident that caused Flight 967 to divert to Denver International Airport after experiencing trouble about 60 miles southeast of Kansas City, Mo.

Federal officials said information from the flight data recorder was downloaded in Denver and was at NTSB headquarters. Bill English, a senior air safety investigator, will handle the inquiry from NTSB headquarters in the District, officials said. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said the incident would be a "front-burner item" for the FAA and NTSB.

Atwood said the turbulence at first was no different than what she's felt on other flights. But over the next three to five seconds, normal changed to something Atwood had never experienced. The plane jumped, then plummeted "like in an elevator shaft."

People were flying out of their seats, Atwood said. Glass and bottles were strewn throughout the cabin. The oxygen masks dropped from overhead.

By the time it was over, Atwood, who said she was wearing her seat belt, was sore and drenched in water and wine.

Atwood said the pilot then said the flight would be diverted and asked anyone onboard with medical experience to hit their call button.

Scott Bookman, chief paramedic for the Denver Hospital Medical Center paramedic division, said 21 patients were taken to hospitals with "minor to moderate injuries." Mike Trevino, a United Airlines spokesman, said four of the injured were flight attendants, part of a 10-member flight crew.

Dee Martinez, a spokeswoman for Denver Health Medical Center, said the hospital treated and released seven patients, who had "moderate head, neck and back injuries."


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