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The Nation

April 2, 2011

Fuselage hole forces Southwest emergency landing

PHOENIX — A "gunshot-like sound" woke Brenda Reese as her Southwest Airlines flight cruised at 36,000 feet. Looking up, she could see the sky through a hole torn in the cabin roof.

The Boeing 737 lost cabin pressure after the hole developed Friday, prompting frightened passengers to grope for oxygen masks as the plane made a terrifying but "controlled descent."

A passenger called it "pandemonium." Another watched as a flight attendant and another passenger passed out, apparently for lack of oxygen, their heads striking the seats in front of them.

Officials said Flight 812 lost pressure because of a fuselage rupture. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the pilot made a "controlled descent from 36,000 feet to 11,000 feet altitude."

His safe emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, about 150 miles southwest of Phoenix, drew applause from relieved passengers.

No serious injuries were reported among the 118 people aboard but a flight attendant was slightly hurt, according to Southwest Airlines. The cause of the hole was not immediately known. The FBI called it a "mechanical failure," not an act of terror or other foul play.

Reese said the plane had just left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for Sacramento, Calif., when the "gunshot-like sound" woke her up. She said oxygen masks dropped as the plane dove.

Seated one row from the rupture, Don Nelson said it took about four noisy minutes for the plane to dip to less than 10,000 feet. "You could tell there was an oxygen deficiency," he said.

"People were dropping," said Christine Ziegler, a 44-year-old project manager from Sacramento who watched as the crew member and a passenger nearby faint. Nelson and Ziegler spoke after a substitute flight took them on to Sacramento.

Reese described the hole as "at the top of the plane, right up above where you store your luggage."

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