When the Boeing 737 MAX 9’s side blew out explosively on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 Friday evening, a 15-year-old high school student was in the window seat in the row directly ahead, his shoulder beside the edge of the gaping hole.
His mother, who was seated beside him, in the middle seat of row 25, described the moment as a very loud bang, like “a bomb exploding.”
As the air in the passenger cabin rushed out, the Oregon woman turned and saw her son’s seat twisting backward toward the hole, his seat headrest ripped off and sucked into the void, her son’s arms jerked upward.
“He and his seat were pulled back and towards the exterior of the plane in the direction of the hole,” she said. “I reached over and grabbed his body and pulled him towards me over the armrest.”
To avoid being inundated with further media calls, the woman, who is in her 50s, a lawyer and a former journalist, asked to be identified only by her middle name, Faye.
“I was probably as filled with adrenaline as I’ve ever been in my life,” Faye said.
“I had my arms underneath his arm, kind of hooked under his shoulders and wrapped around his back,” she continued. “I did not realize until after the flight that his clothing had been torn off of his upper body.”
This account of the traumatic experience of this family aboard flight 1282 is based upon an exclusive and emotional interview with the woman Monday.
A photo taken after the plane landed shows the boy’s seat pulled back, though by then it had returned partially to its position. At the moment of the incident, Faye’s face was pressed against the rear of her son’s right shoulder and she said the seat “was pulled back to such a degree that I was looking directly out of the hole into the night sky.”
The plane’s oxygen masks had dropped from the ceiling in front of the passengers. The woman in the aisle seat of row 25, a stranger to Faye and her son, put on her own mask, then reached across Faye and put the mask on the son.
With difficulty, she turned Faye’s head and managed to get a mask on her too. Then she grabbed onto Faye as she in turn kept a tight grip on her son.
“We were both holding on to my son,” Faye said. “I was just holding him and saying repeatedly, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s OK.’ “
The boy had been wearing a T-shirt and a V-neck pullover windbreaker. Both were ripped off his body.
“I could see his back,” Faye said. “My mind just assumed his shirt had been pulled up by me grabbing him. I did not know that it had been torn off. It didn’t even occur to me.”
As the outrush of air subsided, Faye was gripped with a fear that another panel might pop out in their row. There was no such panel, but she didn’t know that. She tried shouting to her seatmate that they had to move, to get out of those seats.
With the noise of the air outside and with masks on, the seatmate couldn’t hear her.
At that point, “things had stopped flying out. I could see that his bag was on the floor,” Faye said. “I realized the pressure is now no longer such that we are risking getting pulled out by getting out of our seats.”
Faye said she took off her mask so her seatmate could hear her and said “on the count of three I’m going to unbuckle him. We’re going to pull him out.”
Until then, Faye had seen no flight attendant. As they unbuckled, she reached up and pushed the call button.
A flight attendant came to their row. “I saw the shock on her face,” Faye said. “I remember thinking she didn’t know there was a hole in this plane” until that moment.
As they got up, Faye threw her son’s bag into the aisle.
The flight attendant helped them find new seats. The boy was placed in a middle seat about four rows ahead of row 25 and on the other side of the plane from the hole. Faye and her seatmate were seated together eight to 10 rows ahead of him.
Faye said the passengers around her in that forward row had no idea about the hole in the plane until she told them.
“When the plug blew out, I was in go mode. Of course I was terrified. But I’m a mother. And that terror doesn’t occur to you when you’re looking at your child next to a hole in a plane. … It’s about ‘I gotta get my kid out of here immediately,’ ” said Faye. “The terror set in when I was reseated.”
She described emotionally how, now away from the hole, she began to think that the plane could break up, that the back end would shear away.
“I am not a religious person,” she said. “I prayed for the people in that plane. I don’t know that I’ve ever prayed in my life. But I did.”
The plane landed safely about 15 minutes after the blowout, coming to a stop amid a blaze of orange and yellow lights from emergency vehicles. Three first responders came aboard very quickly and asked if anyone was hurt.
They went to her son and saw that he was injured. He was now wearing a shirt someone had grabbed from his bag. The first responders told Faye to collect what belongings she could and leave with her son.
When she walked back to row 25, the man sitting in 26C, the aisle seat of the row where the hole had opened up, was still strapped in.
Faye’s cellphone and her son’s were gone. But her large purse was still under the seat in front of her and her son’s treasured Nike Dunk sneakers were still there.
“I turned around to look behind me and the gentleman in 26C said to me, ‘Are these your car keys?’ and handed me my car keys,” Faye said.
Hugs and gratitude
As Faye exited the plane, the captain came over to her.
“She asked me repeatedly if we were OK,” said Faye. “She appeared very worried for our safety. I hugged her and thanked her for getting everyone on the ground.”
In the disembarkation area, the ground staff put up a medical blind, shielding Faye and her son and two other distressed passengers.
The Alaska Airlines ground staff looked shocked, she said. Both Faye and her son were injured but did not require urgent medical attention.
At this point, Faye said, she was focused on her son.
“He was relatively calm. He’s a tough kid,” she said. “I tried very hard to set the tone with him as far as how we were going to behave.”
“In crisis situations, I am not one to panic,” Faye added. “I slipped up a couple of times. When the pilot came out, I lost my composure. When I saw the passenger who had been seated next to me, I lost my composure.”
She said the stranger seated beside them “was a rock the entire time.”
“I hugged her after the flight was over and we exchanged information,” Faye said. “I told her I don’t think I could have got through this without her.”
An Alaska Airlines employee drove Faye and her son to their car and they left the airport. They went to friends in Portland and got in touch with Faye’s husband back home.
Angry at Alaska
Faye said she had no intention of speaking to the media until she saw the initial statements from Alaska in the aftermath of the accident, which emphasized that no one was injured and to her seemed to diminish the severity of what had happened.
And she became angrier when she read accounts of how pilots had reported intermittent depressurization warnings for the airplane in the days before Friday’s flight.
Alaska told The Seattle Times on Saturday that those incidents were “fully evaluated and resolved per approved maintenance procedures,” but also said that “out of an abundance of caution,” Alaska had restricted the jet from flying long distances over water.
Faye said she’s disturbed by that and wants to know if the previous depressurization indications were in any way related to Friday’s accident.
“I’m very concerned that Alaska chose to forego maintenance on it and put that plane back in the sky,” she said.
“Maybe there’s nothing to it. I don’t know. But if in fact that’s the case, I want people to know,” she said. “People have got to know whether they can trust Alaska Airlines.”
Faye said she chose to come forward after taking advice from professional friends who told her that the real story of what it was like on the plane needed to be told.
In a news conference late Monday, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the maintenance logs show the primary pressurization control system on the airplane went down on three occasions in the days before the incident, but was backed up by a secondary system.
“At this time, we have no indications whatsoever that this correlated in any way to the expulsion of the door plug and the rapid decompression,” Homendy said.