Explosion On Jetliner, 60 Reported Injured
KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) _ An explosion tore open an Aloha Airlines jetliner over the ocean southeast of the island of Maui on Thursday, injuring 60 people and leaving one person missing, authorities said.
The Boeing 737, one engine aflame and its cabin exposed, made an emergency landing at Kahului Airport at 2 p.m. (8 p.m. EDT). Aloha said the Hilo-to- Honolulu flight had set out with 89 passengers, five crew members and an air traffic controller.
″It was like somebody had peeled off a layer of skin. You could just see all the passengers sitting there,″ said George Harvey, area coordinator for the Federal Aviation Administration in Honolulu.
Sixty people were brought to Maui Memorial Hospital and 12 were admitted, two in critical condition and four in serious, said Dr. Charles Mitchell, emergency room director. Injuries included cuts, blunt trauma and burns, he said.
″They told me there was a loud sudden explosion and the roof of the plane literally flew off,″ Mitchell.
One person was unaccounted for, said Harvey.
A witness, Craig Nichols of Pocatello, Idaho, said after the plane came to a stop, he saw ″some really mangled people (passengers),″ including one with an arm almost severed.
″It looked like a normal landing with the whole top of the plane gone,″ he said, adding that the damage began behind the cockpit, ″clear down to the windows,″ and extended to the rear.
Radio station KNUI on Maui reported that one person had been sucked out of the plane in the air, but there was no immediate confirmation from the airline, and Harvey said he did not know what happened to the missing person.
Herb Campos, a fire chief in Kahului, said ″we are trying to ascertain if this is true, but we have no confirmation at this point.″ The cause of the explosion, which occurred above the Alenuihaha Channel between the islands of Hawaii and Maui, was unknown, said Kevin Morimatsu, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
FBI agents from Honolulu were sent to investigate whether the explosion was caused by a bomb, said FBI spokesman Robert Heafner.
Luana Richardson, a spokeswoman for Aloha Airlines, said the pilot reported an emergency 25 miles southeast of Maui. Maui is about 110 miles from Hilo.
Alan Lee, assistant hospital administrator, said passengers reported hearing an explosion in the forward part of the plane, apparently around the first-class section.
Some witnesses said the aircraft was in flames as it landed, and the front door was blown off.
A passenger, Alice Godwin of Boulder City, Nev., said she had put on a life jacket and placed her head between her knees. ″I sang all the hymns I knew,″ she said. ″That kept me busy.″
Mark Eberly, a ramp supervisor at the airport, said one of the plane’s engines was smoking as it landed and a section of the roof missing. ″I saw hair flying in the wind and arms dangling,″ he said.
He said the plane was weaving as it headed in for a landing. ″You could tell his plane was on one engine,″ said Eberly. ″One engine was on fire and smoking.″
″I have to give the pilot credit. He brought it in good,″ said Eberly, who said he and a friend dropped to their knees in shock.
A Coast Guard cutter, an airplane and two helicopters searched the water southeast of Maui for ″anything related to the aircraft exploding,″ said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Jeffrey Crawley.
He said he could not confirm whether searchers had been instructed to look for possible survivors.
Eberly said he heard the pilot radio that there had been an explosion in the air, and the aircraft was coming in with major damage.
Mathew Thayer, a photographer, said a 15- to 20-foot section of the fuselage was torn off, aparently by the explosion. The gash stretched from just behind the cockpit to the wing area.
Officials at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the primary subsidiary of Boeing Co., said there were no fuel lines or other potential sources for an explosion in the part of the plane where the blast was reported.
″The fuel is in the wing, the engines are in the wing and the fuel lines are all right there,″ Boeing spokesman Tom Cole said in Seattle.
Even in the extremely unlikely event that a turbine blade tore loose from an engine and ripped into the fuselage, i could not hit forward from the wing, and the effect would be nothing like what happened to the Aloha plane, he said.
″To have it just explode in the air is just unheard of,″ Cole said. ″I think this is a very unusual circumstance that is not related to any other accidents we have had.″
Boeing spokesman David Jimenez said the plane was one of nine 737-200s delivered to Aloha in the late 1970s.
The -200 was the second version of the 737, Boeing’s smallest jetliners, and cost $17 million to $22 million each. The first 737-200 was put into service in 1968, and nearly 1,100 remain in use, Cole said.
The 737 series is Boeing’s all-time best seller, with total orders of more than 2,000, Boeing said.