Loose baggage flew violently around the crowded cabin of the DC10 as jet engines screamed in reverse. Panels and lights broke loose from the ceiling. The plane's forward section shook violently. Louise Wolff, seated in Row 14, looked out the window in terror and "saw a highway go by."
Wolff, a Bethesda resident wrapping up a three-week vacation in Spain and Morocco, had expected nothing worse than a tedious, seven-hour flight when she boarded the charter jet on Monday in Malaga, a Spanish resort town.
Instead, she found herself aboard a fully loaded jet that barreled off the end of a runway, demolished vehicles on a road and finally slid to rest in a field, and sent her fleeing for her life as flames engulfed the wreckage.
Yesterday, Wolff, 37, was safe in her home off Bradley Boulevard and able to describe with composure the accident, which killed about 50 of 393 people aboard and could well have ranked among the worst air disasters on record.
Wolff spent $440 for a round-trip ticket and, taking time off from her job as a product manager at General Electric Information Services Co. in Rockville, backpacked her way around Spain alone and visited Morocco. At 9 a.m. Monday, she found herself at the Malaga airport, waiting for the flight back to New York.
Passengers carried large numbers of boxes and bags aboard the DC10 and took a long time getting settled. Every seat was taken. The American couple next to her sat with boxes containing porcelain statues stacked on their laps, making her wonder how she was going to endure such close quarters during the long flight.
She took off her hiking boots and stowed them under her seat. Takeoff was about 45 minutes late.
Wolff said the jet seemed to gain speed too slowly. But the first sure sign that something was wrong came when a partition between the cabin and cockpit began vibrating strongly. "It reminded me of when your car is out of alignment," Wolff said.
Suddenly, the pilot put the engines into reverse to try to stop the plane. "We were all thrown forward," Wolff said. "At that point the ceiling panels broke loose." The nose dipped and the plane was bumping violently over very rough ground as it ran out of paved runway. Wolff remembers saying to herself: "Oh, God, no."
She felt certain it was about to plow into some unseen structure ahead and pictured the plane crumpling into junk metal, with everyone trapped inside.
Then, miraculously, the jet came to rest in a field. The cabin was dark and someone behind her was saying "don't panic, don't panic." Wolff's first thought was not to escape, but to settle into her seat and recover. The danger seemed to be past.
But around her, people were moving. Clutching her black carry-on bag and her hiking boots, she reached a door and slid down an emergency chute. There was no real panic. At the bottom were other people, some of them gripping souvenir statues. She saw smoke pouring from the jet's tail section -- her first indication of fire.
Suddenly a new fear, that the jet would explode, gripped her. She and other survivors ran from the wreckage in panic. "We ran and we looked back and we ran and we looked back," she recalls. As they watched from a grove of trees where the felt safe, flames and explosions moved forward from the tail and engulfed the jet.
Within a few hours, buses arrived to pick up survivors and take them to two hotels, where they stayed free of charge. Airline officials passed out cash for necessities -- Wolff's backpack with her clothes was burned up. Survivors grouped together, feeling a bond and trading endless stories of escape and death.
A Boeing 747 jetliner arrived that night to take survivors on to New York. Wolff said she felt too shaken to travel. Tuesday afternoon, she and other passengers were summoned to the airport for another flight. What type of plane is it, airline officials were asked. A DC10, they were told.
"I said, 'I can't go, I'm sorry,' " Wolff said.
Some decided to stay and seek alternate transport -- with at least one couple insisting on a ship. But Wolff relented and decided to go, feeling another crash so soon was extremely unlikely. She and several other survivors were seated in first class and fussed over by the cabin crew for the flight to New York, which was completed without incident.
Wolff said she'll fly again but the old "roller coaster ride" thrill is gone. "I'm just going to play it relaxed for a while . . . I don't have the intention to stay on boats."