How near disaster for Alaska Airlines jet could impact mental health of those on board

Passengers aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 heard a loud bang and felt the plane suddenly drop as wind blew through the aircraft.

A few have spoken publicly about the shock of being on the Boeing 737 Max 9 jet that was forced to make an emergency landing last Friday night after a door-sized cabin panel blew off early in the flight.

The plane, bound for Ontario, Calif., east of Los Angeles, managed to return to Portland, Ore., and land safely, and none of the 171 passengers and six crew members were seriously injured.

But a trauma specialist says some people may be left with post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on the intensity of their feelings during the frightening but short-lived ordeal.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said after the danger has passed, something seemingly unrelated to the initial event could act as a trigger, a sign of PTSD.

They may feel that same “existential threat,” or a sense their life could end, when they’re once again exposed to “something from the previous environment,” such as a random sound or smell on the plane just before the blowout, he said.

WATCH | Alaska Airlines ‘trip from hell’: How it happened:

Alaska Airlines ‘trip from hell’: How it happened | About That

A door plug on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 flew off at a little under 5,000 metres, creating a gaping hole in the side of the Boeing 737 Max 9. Andrew Chang runs through what happened moment by moment as the plane made an emergency landing.

“They may leave that airplane with that association formed,” and if that stimulus comes up, that could trigger “the terror they felt the moment that window blew out,” Joordens told CBC News.

Passengers and crew were in the air for only a few minutes when part of the plane’s fuselage blew open, and they were soon back on the ground, but it was traumatic for some who said they didn’t know if they would survive.

‘I just really thought I was going to die’

Emma Vu, a swim coach in Portland and social media manager for the swimsuit brand Arena, was on the flight when a door plug detached from the fuselage and flew out.

She was asleep when she felt the plane drop, but she knew it was something “way different” than just turbulence when she saw the oxygen masks come down.

“And yeah, I started freaking out,” she told Reuters.

“In the moment … a lot of tears. I just didn’t know what was going on. But I think I will say that I feel that a lot of people around me were a lot calmer than I would have thought for a situation like this.”

WATCH | Alaska Airlines passenger describes her terrifying flight:

Alaska Airlines passenger describes her terrifying flight

Frequent flyer Emma Vu says she ‘started freaking out’ when a section on the side of the plane blew out, but tried to remind herself the odds of it happening again are slim.

Vu told Swimming World magazine that she started texting her family and friends, “and I just really thought I was going to die, which seems dramatic, but I really felt that way in the moment.”

She said she tried taking deep breaths during the rest of the flight, which she used to do before races, and once back on the ground to book a flight to Burbank, Calif., for the next day, she was able to talk about the experience to a fellow swimmer who stood in line with her.

A passenger named Courtney, who goes by @imsocorny on TikTok and posted video of herself wearing a mask on the flight, called the blowout “literally the scariest moment of my life.” She also said in the captions, “I still can’t believe this happened.”

Joordens said those closest to the torn fuselage may have experienced a higher level of existential threat, while those four or five rows away may not have felt enough danger to trigger PTSD, and by talking things through, they can recover relatively quickly.

Teen’s seatbelt saved his life, says passenger

The loud noise was startling enough, and the roaring wind that immediately filled the cabin left passenger Kelly Bartlett unnerved. Still, it wasn’t until a shaken teenager, shirtless and scratched, slid into the seat next to her that she realized just how close disaster had come.

“We knew something was wrong,” Bartlett told The Associated Press. “We didn’t know what. We didn’t know how serious. We didn’t know if it meant we were going to crash.”

An air traveller wears an oxygen mask.
Kelly Bartlett is shown wearing an oxygen mask on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 after part of the plane’s fuselage blew out on Jan. 5. She says a shaken and scratched teenage boy who was seated closest to the blowout ended up sitting next to her after the ordeal. (Kelly Bartlett/The Associated Press)

Flight attendants began moving passengers from the area where the blowout occurred. Among them was the teenage boy who had been in the middle seat nearest to the blowout. He moved next to Bartlett, three rows away from the hole in the plane, while the teen’s mother was reseated elsewhere.

“It was his seatbelt that kept him in his seat and saved his life. And there he was next to me,” she said.

The 15-year-old, who told her his name was Jack, said what happened was “unbelievable” and insisted he was OK but a “bit scratched” — communicating by typing on her cellphone because of the noise. However, the force of the blowout was strong enough to rip off his shirt.

The blowout and sudden depressurization damaged seats in 12 cabin rows, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy said on Sunday night. The two seats closest to the blowout, which had no one sitting in them, were left “torqued,” or twisted, she said.

Nurse comforted grandchildren

Nurse Vicki Kreps was also on the flight, about five or six rows in front of the blowout, travelling with her two grandchildren — Brady, 7, and Brynlee, 5. Kreps spoke to CBC Radio’s As It Happens host Nil Köksal about the experience.

She said she went into work mode and “didn’t have that panic.” Neither did she envision any worst-case scenario because her only focus was the well-being of the children.

LISTEN | Nurse describes moment oxygen masks came down:

As It Happens5:07Nurse describes the moment oxygen masks came down on Alaska Airlines flight

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 made an emergency landing on Friday when a door-sized section on the side of the plane blew out. Nurse Vicki Kreps was on that flight with her two grandchildren — Brady, 7, and Brynlee, 5. Kreps spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal about the experience.

“I put my mask on first and then assisted Brynlee to get hers on. She was a little more fearful than my brave Brady in the experience and she was crying, so comforting her, getting them settled into the seats, comfortably being consoled by me was my focus in those first moments.”

University of Toronto psychology professor Joordens said being occupied can help in what seems like a life-threatening situation.

“All of the passengers probably would have had fight-flight kick in, and so they would have been highly energized … and what the brain really wants to do at that point is do something, so something to make the situation better,” he said.

Hissing sound before the blowout

Kreps said she was aware of something amiss even before the blowout.

“The first unusual thing was I heard a hissing noise, which my brain interpreted as baggage moving overhead, because also my body was being pitched forward slightly. I think now my assumption is that was probably the first sounds of the leaking air,” she said.

“The sudden hissing sound, the pitch forward and then an immediate gust of air in our faces, and we were pushed back into our seats.”

At one point, Kreps said, she looked around and could see there was a hole in the plane.

“We were very fortunate; we were only at 16,000 feet … we were all seat-belted in … so it was a positive outcome. But at 30,000 feet, if it had happened just 10 minutes later, it would have been catastrophic,” with a greater risk of people becoming unconscious, she said.

Once the plane levelled off, Kreps said, the flight was “surreal, almost eerily calm.”

“I want to know they’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Kreps has been on three flights since then. She flew her grandchildren back to their parents, then took two flights to get herself back home to Vancouver, Wash.

Planes grounded for safety checks

Since the blowout, U.S. regulators have grounded 171,737 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes for safety checks, while Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and Chicago-based United Airlines, which together have 70 per cent of the 737 Max 9 fleet, have cancelled hundreds of flights this week.

United Airlines said on Monday that preliminary inspections have found that bolts in some of the grounded planes were in need of “additional tightening,” pointing to possible “installation issues.”

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun on Tuesday acknowledged mistakes were made and told staff that he and many customers had been “shaken to the bone.” Boeing must work to earn their confidence, he said.

Canadian airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Lynx Air and Flair Airlines, say they fly the 737 Max 8 but not the Max 9.

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