Merced man recalls terrifying trip aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 812

April 4, 2011 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG David Smith, 28, of Merced, watches a news video about Southwest Airlines Flight 812. Smith was a passenger on the Phoenix-to-Sacramento flight when a five-foot hole opened in the ceiling of the jetliner.

Somewhere over Arizona, an explosive sound rocked the cabin of Southwest Airlines Flight 812 Friday afternoon.

Sunlight streamed through a five-foot-wide hole that ripped through the aluminum skin of the fuselage. Overhead oxygen masks dropped as it became hard to breathe.

Merced's David Smith, along with the other 118 passengers on board, thought the plane was going to crash.

The Merced Sun-Star spoke to Smith on Monday about the harrowing ordeal that continues to make national headlines amid concerns about airline safety. "It sounded like a bomb, or a gunshot or something," said Smith, who was on his way home from a business trip to Phoenix.

The pilots took quick action to lower the plane's altitude, rapidly descending from the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet to about 11,000 feet in a matter of minutes. But they weren't able to inform passengers about what was happening -- and passengers assumed the worst. "I thought that at any second, more of these things were going to start flying off," Smith, 28, said about the apparently missing piece of the ceiling.

A post-flight investigation revealed that the hole was probably caused by subsurface stress cracks in the plane.

Southwest Airlines said Monday it had found similar cracks on additional Boeing 737 jetliners. It canceled flights nationwide to conduct inspections.

The ordeal over Arizona lasted three to five minutes, but it seemed longer to the terrified passengers. A flight attendant and several passengers lost consciousness during the descent, and Smith said it was hard to gasp for air. "As many times as I fly and hear the safety instructions, I never pay attention. I remember I was having a hard time with the oxygen mask."

Smith, a traveling superintendent for Loomis-based JS Contracting, was on his way home after a "crazy" week involving a business trip with stops in Texas, Colorado and Arizona. He was looking forward to getting home to see his wife and children in Merced.

The plane made an emergency landing at Yuma International Airport. Passengers were stuck on the tarmac for about three hours as emergency crews responded and the flight investigation began.

Finally, the tired vacationers and commuters were shuttled to another plane for the trip home to Sacramento. Smith said he didn't think twice about getting on another plane. "It was a long day and everybody was in a hurry to get home, but I look back now and see that so many planes had stress cracks."

They landed in Sacramento just before 10 p.m. Friday, but Smith's bad day wasn’t over. As he drove into Merced in the wee hours of Saturday morning, his car broke down and he had to have it towed home.

But the most frustrating part of the experience for Smith? Nobody believed him. Not his wife. Not his boss. Not his co-workers.

That's what happens when a plane has problems on April Fool's Day.

Online content editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsunstar.com.

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