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Originally published December 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 28, 2005 at 11:24 AM

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"Absolutely terrifying" flight after ground-crew mistake

Alaska Airlines Flight 536 was 20 minutes out of Seattle and heading for Burbank, Calif., Monday afternoon when a thunderous blast rocked...

Seattle Times staff reporters

Alaska Airlines Flight 536 was 20 minutes out of Seattle and heading for Burbank, Calif., Monday afternoon when a thunderous blast rocked the plane.

Passengers gasped for air and grabbed their oxygen masks as the plane dropped from about 26,000 feet, passenger Jeremy Hermanns said by phone Tuesday.

"This was absolutely terrifying for a few moments," said Hermanns, 28, of Los Angeles. "Basically your ears popped, there's a really loud bang and there was a lot of white noise. It was like somebody turned on a leaf blower in your ear."

Though the MD-80 plane was quickly stabilized, he said, passengers spent the next 25 minutes tearful and anxious. An "acrid" odor of burning plastic overwhelmed the cabin, Hermanns said.

"A lot of people were very stunned," said Hermanns, who had been visiting Seattle with his fiancée for Christmas. "It was surreal."

When the 3:54 p.m. flight returned to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 4:53 p.m., passengers broke into applause before walking through the gate, sitting down and waiting for another plane, he said.

An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said baggage handlers had bumped the plane's fuselage with loading equipment and caused "a crease" in the side of the aircraft. The handlers are contract workers hired to replace unionized workers in May.

About 20 minutes after takeoff, the crease blew into a 1-foot-by-6-inch hole, said Jim Struhsaker, an NTSB senior air-safety investigator.

Port of Seattle police weren't notified about the incident until Tuesday, when operations staffers for Alaska contacted them, airport spokesman Bob Parker said. The airline asked police to fill out a "hit-and-run report" because an employee struck the aircraft with a baggage tug, he added. The report was unavailable Tuesday.

NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, Alaska Airlines and Port of Seattle police are investigating, Struhsaker said.

The hole was about 4 feet below the passenger windows in the front half of the plane, Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Caroline Boren said.

She said Alaska conducted safety briefings with employees at Sea-Tac on Tuesday "to discuss the importance of rapid and thorough reporting of any ground incidents, whether there is apparent aircraft damage or not."

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The airline also is reviewing details from Monday's incident with the NTSB and working with the agency to ensure aircraft safety, she said.

Alaska saw an increase in ground-damage incidents at Sea-Tac after it replaced 472 unionized workers in May with workers from Menzies Aviation, based near London, the airline said. The switch contributed to a sharp increase in delayed departures from Sea-Tac.

But none of the incidents presented a flight-safety concern, Boren said Tuesday, and the number of incidents has returned to a more normal level.

Hermanns, who said he is a licensed pilot, said it appeared Alaska pilots put the plane into a steep descent so passengers could breathe easier without the oxygen masks, and he praised their efforts.

He said that immediately after the explosion, flight attendants also jumped to help the handful of children flying alone.

But after hearing that the hole was the fault of baggage handlers, Hermanns said he's unsure if he'll fly Alaska again.

Monday's incident came as the Seattle-based carrier faces renewed questions about its quality-assurance procedures, almost six years after the crash of Alaska Flight 261.

In January 2000, the MD-83 plunged into the ocean off Southern California, killing all 88 passengers and crew.

Federal investigators concluded that the crash resulted from maintenance shortcomings — specifically the failure to lubricate a key part in the plane's tail section called the jackscrew.

Now the FAA is examining Alaska's repair practices after three incidents in the past year raised new questions about its procedures for lubricating the part, including Alaska's oversight of work by outside contractors.

The incidents involved three planes undergoing overnight repairs at the time.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times news partner KING-TV contributed to this report.

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