United Airlines passengers, pedestrians recall horror of watching engine rain debris

FAN Editor

Eyewitnesses in the air and on the ground said they watched in horror and shock as parts of a jet engine exploded and broke apart shortly after takeoff from Denver, raining debris over homes.

Although there were no reported injuries or deaths during Saturday’s incident over Broomfield, Colorado, residents and passengers told ABC News they are still shaken up.

“It was more along the lines of, ‘Hey, is everything going to be OK?’ That’s not normal,” Brett Guy, who was a passenger aboard United Flight 328, told ABC News. “I didn’t know what to think.”

The Boeing 777-200’s right engine failed shortly after takeoff around 1 p.m. Saturday for a flight from Denver to Honolulu, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Parts of the engine began to strip off as it was engulfed in flames, and debris dropped in midair.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday evening that based on their initial investigation, the inlet and cowling separated from the engine and two fan blades were fractured.

A portion of one blade was embedded in the containment ring, and some of the fan blades exhibited damage to the tips and leading edges, according to the NTSB.

Guy said he and other passengers heard the noise of the boom and saw the engine come apart from their windows.

“The plane was shaking pretty hard,” he recalled. “It didn’t stop, and nobody really knew. And then, you looked out the window to the side.”

Tyler Thal, a resident of Broomfield, told ABC News he was walking with his family that afternoon when the engine exploded. Thal said he and his family were scared after hearing the explosion and seeing the flash of light.

He grew more concerned about the passengers as he saw the jet continue to fly with the engine on fire.

“It’s nothing like anything we’ve ever seen. So it was fear for my daughter, my wife, and I [was] just concerned, knowing that that plane is full of people,” Thal said.

Thal said he was hoping that the plane could make it safely with the remaining engine.

Guy also had a similar thought while he was in his seat on the plane after he remembered a moment from the 1986 Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.”

“There’s the part where it’s like, engine one is out. And then he’s like, ‘I’m shutting it down,'” he remembered. “And for some reason, in my head, I was thinking, ‘We’re OK with one engine, but this is kind of messed up.'”

The plane returned to Denver International Airport, and all 231 passengers and 10 crew exited without any major injuries, according to the FAA.

The engine debris, however, caused massive damage to homes and streets below. Huge parts of the plane, including the metal coverings, fell on roofs, sidewalks and trees.

Kirby Klements told ABC News he was in his home with his wife when they heard the boom from the explosion. They raced to their front window and saw a giant, circular piece of the engine roll right past them.

“The engine cowling ended up laying right here hanging off of my tree branch,” he said. “It had come down and landed square in the bed of my truck at the corner of my garage. It fell over and landed and ended right there with my wife and I sitting right inside here going, ‘What is that?'”

Klements said the damage was very scary.

“If somebody would have been in there that had been seriously injured or killed,” he said. “I mean … the whole top of the truck is in the side of the cabin of the truck.”

Klements said he and his wife heard about the plane making a safe landing from the news and that as of this afternoon, the debris was still on his property.

“So that was very fortunate that nobody on the ground got hurt from the several large pieces that hit around the neighborhood,” he said. “And thank goodness that nobody in the plane was injured or anything either.”

Debris remains scattered throughout the town as the FAA and NTSB survey the damage and investigate the incident.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson issued an emergency airworthiness directive Sunday that would require immediate or stepped-up inspections of Boeing 777 airplanes equipped with certain Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines.

“This will likely mean that some airplanes will be removed from service,” Dickson said in a statement.

Shortly after the FAA issued its directive, United announced it would temporarily remove 24 Boeing 777 aircrafts powered by those engines from its schedule.

“Since yesterday, we’ve been in touch with regulators at the NTSB and FAA and will continue to work closely with them to determine any additional steps that are needed to ensure these aircraft meet our rigorous safety standards and can return to service,” the airline said in a statement. “As we swap out aircraft, we expect only a small number of customers to be inconvenienced.”

A person familiar with the situation told ABC News this particular engine has a unique design. The blade itself is hollow titanium and the source compared it to a chocolate Easter bunny.

Tom Haueter, ABC News Consultant, and former NTSB Director of the Office of Aviation Safety, called the engine fan blades “critical” to the investigation.

“What the NTSB wants to look at is, is there any evidence of a preexisting issue with that engine, with that fan blade,” he told ABC News.

ABC News’ Roger K. Lee contributed to this report.

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