KAHULUI, HAWAII, APRIL 29 -- Aloha Airlines flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing was in the first-class section of Flight 243, at 24,000 feet 20 minutes out of Hilo en route to Honolulu.
"She was just handing my wife a drink," said William Flanigan, a 54-year-old aerospace engineer from St. Davids, Pa., who was on a 21st wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii.
"She had stopped and told us this was the last call. We were going to be descending. And then, whoosh! She was gone. Their hands just touched when it happened."
A gaping hole had opened the roof of the Boeing 737-200 jet with an explosive sound as pressurized air in the cabin blasted into the atmosphere, apparently pulling Lansing, 55, to her death, and exposing the aircraft and 94 others aboard to a tornado of wind that quickly peeled back the top of the cabin from the cockpit to the wing, one witness said, "like a banana."
Joy Flanigan, in seat 2-C next to what once had been a window, fell forward onto the tray table, her head and face cut by flying metal and flailing wires.
"Her head was laying down on a tray table with blood all over," her husband said. "I could see the sky. I could see the ocean. I was scared to death the wind was going to rip her away. I grabbed her two arms and told her I loved her. I was afraid we were going to crash."
But pilot Robert Schornstheimer, 42, a 12-year veteran with the airline, unable to know anything except that there was a tremendous loss of cabin pressure, was diving to 6,000 feet and fighting to keep Flight 243 airborne as he headed for an emergency landing, which he successfully made at Kahului Airport on Maui Thursday.
"I couldn't believe it," Flanigan said Friday at the Maui Beach Hotel, where he was recuperating and waiting for his wife to be released from Maui Memorial Hospital.
"I remember saying, 'Joy, my God, the guy is still flying this plane.' There were wires hanging all around, wrapped around me," Flanigan said. "I remember yelling 'I'm being electrocuted.' I really thought I was being burned alive."
Flanigan, his wife and 59 other passengers and crew were treated at the hospital after the emergency landing in Kahului at 1:58 p.m. The jet was miraculously in one piece.
Dale Bringleson, owner of Island Aeromotive, watched the landing from his company hangar at Kahului Airport. "He did an excellent job of flying," he said of Schornstheimer. "Because the upper structure was gone, there was a possibility of the plane buckling. If he hadn't been real careful, it could have busted in two."
Thirteen persons, including Joy Flanigan were admitted to the hospital overnight, and seven were still there late today. One remains in critical condition, according to Dr. Charles Mitchell, director of emergency services.
The Coast Guard cutter Cape Corwin from Maui and helicopters from Barber's Point Coast Guard Air Station on Oahu searched the waters between Maui and Oahu for any sign of the missing flight attendant and for debris from the aircraft.
One passenger, Eric Becklin of Honolulu, an astronomer, was sitting three seats from the back of the aircraft when "all of a sudden, I heard a loud noise, a bang, but not an explosion, and felt a strong pressure change. I looked up front and saw the front of the top left of the airplane disintegrating, just going apart, pieces of it flying away. It started with a hole about a yard wide, and it just kept coming apart.
"I thought it was going to fall apart before he could land it," Becklin said.
"One stewardess was walking up and down and telling people to fasten their safety belts. She tried to call the pilot on the intercom and couldn't get through, and then came back and asked if there was anyone aboard who could fly the plane."
If there had been, they would have had to have walked through a 30-foot stretch of open cabin to get to the cockpit.
"There was no warning at all," Becklin said. "It put a whole new perspective on the word 'sudden.' I felt an incredible sadness that I wouldn't see my family again, but the next instant all of the people in the back of the plane looked at each other and there was this incredible wave of hope as the plane continued forward. We all started talking instantly, babbling, that the pilot was going to be able to land the plane."