Above the clouds and the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, a starboard engine fell apart, and 373 people held together.
We don’t know much about what happened on the United Airlines flight, not mechanically at least. The outer casing ripped off the rightmost engine midway through the San Francisco to Honolulu flight. Passengers heard a boom, followed by a high-pitched whine, and then they all shook violently with the entire plane.
For the better part of the next hour, passengers watched shreds of metal flap like feathers on the wing. Metal flew down to the ocean. When the partially disintegrated Boeing 777 finally descended toward a runway in Honolulu, hundreds of people braced their heads against seat backs, prepared for who-knows-what, and lived.
United’s statement on the incident is brief and vague and antiseptic enough that we’ll quote it verbatim:
Flight 1175 traveling to Honolulu from San Francisco landed safely after the pilots called for an emergency landing because of an issue with the #2 engine. Our pilots followed all necessary protocols to safely land the aircraft. The aircraft taxied to the gate and passengers deplaned normally.
There will be no further comment while the federal government investigates, the airline added. That is all.
Except, of course, for the people — who countered terror with acts of courage, grace and love, and even humor and bad puns.
Jeff Carter, who showed us how you stare down fear
When the engine’s shell ripped off and fell hundreds of feet to the water, there was no land in sight from any window on the plane, KITV reported. Oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, and the plane shook violently, sometimes banging when a loose chunk of metal hit the wing.
So naturally, people panicked. But panic only lasts so long. The flight crew told everyone to sit down and buckle up, the New York Times wrote. That’s what everyone did.
In his aisle seat, a technical engineer named Jeff Carter pulled out his phone and turned it toward his own face, which was serene, though it shook in the frame. He panned the camera to show that every man and woman behind him wore the same expression. Calm, silent, though everything shuddered around them.
“What a United 777 full of people calmly preparing themselves for death might look like,” he later wrote beneath his video. He had thought the vibration would rip the plane apart.
But none of that showed in his face. Before he stopped recording, Carter took his hat off and smiled gravely to the camera.
Erik Haddad, who never lost his sense of humor
Everyone on the plane was afraid, passengers later told reporters. The flight crew acted calm, KITV reported, as they walked back to the windows to see for themselves the engine’s cables and red innards exposed to open air. “But they were scared,” one passenger told ABC News. “You could tell from their face.”
Meanwhile Erik Haddad, a Google engineer, pulled the safety manual out of his seat-back pocket and framed it against the terror outside his window. He pulled out his phone and made a joke in the face of death.
Nor was that the only joke he came up with on the flight.
“That looks bad,” Haddad wrote. “Plane and simple.”
Haley Ebert, who remembered what she flew for
When the casing ripped, it sounded like a gunshot, Haley Ebert told the New York Times. She opened her window shade and saw metal flying into the ocean.
“A bolt hit the wing, and it just made this huge bam,” she said.
Then came 40 minutes of terror. When the plane descended over Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in the early afternoon, she and hundreds of others pressed their hands and heads to the seats in front of them. The flight crew chanted: “Brace, brace, brace, brace, brace.” Some sobbed amid the chanting.
And then it was over. The plane rolled to a stop on the runway at 1 p.m., Hawaii time. The shaking ceased. Sobs gave way to claps and whooping.
Surreal scenes continued to play outside the starboard windows until the passengers deplaned. Men in yellow vests stared up at the engine, many times their size, ripped open like a scrap-yard car for reasons still undisclosed.
Then 363 passengers, eight flight attendants and two pilots walked safely off Flight 1175 and went their ways. And for all the images of grim bravery and naked terror in the air, Ebert shared one last picture of her journey, and why it was worth it in the end.