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NTSB investigates United Airlines plunge

Oxygen masks
The violent turbulence caused the oxygen masks to deploy  
December 29, 1997
Web posted at: 11:41 a.m. EST (1641 GMT)

NARITA, Japan (CNN) -- At least 10 people remained hospitalized after a United Airlines jumbo jet hit severe turbulence and plunged 300 meters (1,000 feet) over the Pacific on Sunday. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the incident, which left one woman dead and at least 74 injured.

An airport police spokesman in Narita said that the 32-year-old Japanese woman from Tokyo had died of internal bleeding in her head.

vxtreme CNN's Linden Soles reports.

The sudden turbulence at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) sent the Boeing 747 aircraft plunging and jolting for several minutes, tossing passengers and crew headfirst against overhead compartments and the ceiling.

Flight 826, bound for Honolulu with 374 passengers and 19 crew members, was two hours into its flight from Tokyo's main international Narita Airport when it hit the strong winds.

Amateur video from inside Flight 826.
video icon 434K/00 sec./320x240
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Passengers, most of them Japanese vacationers, were just finishing their evening meal when the aircraft was buffeted by the strong winds.

"We have just hit air turbulence and the aircraft descended 300 meters. There is no danger of a crash," the pilot told panicked passengers on the plane's intercom.

The accident took place over the northern Pacific about 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) east of Narita.

Woman in aisle
People were thrown from their seats and into the aisles  

"I thought I was dying," said Kiyotaka Eto, a 16-year-old high school student from Osaka who had been headed for a surfing vacation in Hawaii.

He said his seat belt saved him from injury.

A traveling companion, Yuji Takahashi, 17, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, said, "I hit my head on the ceiling. It was like something straight out of the movies."

In a videotape taken by a passenger aboard and shown on Japan's NHK television, oxygen masks dangled from the ceiling and people lay in an aisle. Screams could be heard.

When the plane finally settled down, passengers saw that the ceiling was sprayed with red wine, and parts of the aisle were filled with shattered plates.

The bottles of cologne in the rest rooms were broken. The overhead luggage compartments were cracked in some spots.

Those seated toward the back of the plane were more seriously injured than those in the front seats.

"Our hearts go out to everyone who was on the flight and to their family, to their friends and loved ones," said United Chairman and CEO Gerald Greenwald.

United has assigned representatives to each of the hospitals to assist passengers, said Joe Hopkins, United spokesman in Chicago.

A Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) spokesman in Washington said the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign was on but reports indicated some people were moving about the cabin.

Ambulances and fire engines stood by as the aircraft touched down.

The scene at the airport after the jet was forced to return to Japan  

Passengers with broken limbs, neck injuries and bloodied faces were helped off the airliner.

Several injured had neck braces fitted before they were carried from the plane on stretchers.

The FAA spokesman said that while Japanese authorities would handle the formal investigation, the FAA would look at the incident "because we're always interested in turbulence issues and whether procedures were followed."

The plane's flight data recorders will be returned as soon as possible to the National Transportation Safety Board's laboratory in Washington for analysis.

An NTSB spokesman said the so-called "black boxes" could possibly provide useful information about the incident and how it was handled by the crew.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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