Kamala Trotter and her 18-year-old daughter Misha Smith, traveling with Smith’s 10-month baby Xavier, were happy to have the middle row all to themselves as they departed Denver International Airport on United Airlines Flight 328 bound for Hawaii.
Smith had just given a bottle to her son, who was drifting off to sleep as the plane ascended past 10,000 feet. They were giddy about Xavier’s first trip to Hawaii, where both Trotter and Smith were born and visited frequently on trips from their home in Kalispell.
Then came a huge explosion. Smith happened to be looking out the window and saw a flash of light. Trotter thought something had crashed into the plane.
“You just knew something terrible had happened,” Trotter said.
The Boeing 777 started vibrating “like a car with bad rotors going 60 down the highway,” as Smith described it, “just this incredible shaking.” As alarmed passengers tried to figure out what had happened, a discomforting quiet settled in. Not a peep of explanation initially came from the cockpit, and from where Trotter and Smith sat in the far back of the expansive twinjet, it was impossible to sort out anything.
“It was eerily calm,” Smith said.
Then a flight attendant broke the silence by telling passengers, “I know we all heard that, and I’m waiting to hear from the cockpit what happened.”
“He had no idea,” Smith said.
After a brief but agonizing wait, the announcement came that the plane had suffered an engine failure and was returning to Denver. Passengers seated next to the engine, which erupted in flames, would have already known the problem, but for Trotter, Smith and others, it was the first answer explaining the traumatic turn of events.
Trotter couldn’t shake the feeling of impending death.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “I thought we were doomed. I actually sent out messages to my husband, my other daughter and my mother, saying I love you and tell everybody else I love them. I thought, ‘This is it. This is what it looks like. Oblivion.’”
Smith was keeping calm as best she could while holding her son in her arms and gripping the hand of her trembling mother.
“My mom was just in a panic,” Smith said. “It felt like we were in a movie. It took a while to process what was going on, that we had actually lost an engine. You only see that in the movies or maybe once every few years in the news.”
While Smith said the flight attendant assured everybody that “we weren’t going to have a crash landing,” and she felt comforted by a sense that the captain had a plan and everything under control, Trotter was less sanguine.
“I was not reassured by anything at anytime,” Trotter said. “Tears were streaming down my face and I was very anxious. I remember looking at the guy across the aisle. His eyes were closed and I assume he was praying.”
“There was lots of praying,” Smith added.
The plane completed its emergency landing at Denver’s airport without incident, and although videos show passengers cheering upon touchdown, their climactic return to safety would have to wait. The captain shut down the plane in the runway as Smith and Trotter watched a fleet of firetrucks zip up to the vessel and begin dousing it. An assortment of law enforcement and ambulances joined the fray.
During all of this, a crewmember delivered more dispiriting news.
“His exact words were: ‘The engine is still smoldering and we might have to make an emergency exit,’” said Smith, who could smell smoke and was keenly aware they were sitting in a plane full of fuel. “At that moment, everyone hopped up and started getting everything ready, grabbing their bags, no questions asked. Then he came back on and said, ‘No, not yet.’ It was touch and go the whole time.”
Finally, the 231 passengers and 10 crewmembers were safely escorted off the aircraft.
Within a few hours, they were on a different flight headed for Hawaii, a jarring transition for Smith and Trotter, exacerbated by the knowledge that they were on the same model of airplane, although the twin-engine Boeing 777 has a track record as one of the world’s safest planes, notwithstanding that day’s events.
“That was anxiety filled for me,” Smith said of the next flight. “You just have to tell yourself that stuff never happens, and statistically it will never happen again. But whenever we hit turbulence I was grabbing the side of my seat.”
Photos of fallen airplane debris sitting in people’s yards in Broomfield, Colorado, including a huge piece resting at a home’s doorstep, dominated headlines across the country. Smith posted videos to TikTok of scenes from inside the plane, including one that garnered more than 2 million views.
According to flight data, the plane was in the air for less than 25 minutes altogether, but it felt significantly longer to passengers onboard. Also, Boeing 777s are designed to fly on one engine in an emergency situation, although passengers didn’t know that at the time, and they likely would have taken little comfort in it even if they did.
Aviation safety experts told the Associated Press that the plane appeared to have suffered an uncontained and catastrophic engine failure, describing such an occurrence as extremely rare.
Trotter, a 54-year-old care coordinator at Western Montana Mental Health Center, will make the same trip again in several weeks, this time using an unfulfilled ticket from last year to travel to Hawaii with her husband and other daughter for spring break.
As for little Xavier, he enjoyed his first Hawaii vacation with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, even if the journey there was an unanticipated adventure. Smith said Xavier jumped at the initial explosion but didn’t cry throughout the ordeal.
“He was just looking at me with big eyes but eventually calmed down, and the shaking almost put him to sleep,” Smith said. “I think he knew something was going on, but he got everyone else’s vibes, like it was time to be silent and wait. I was very impressed with how he handled it.”
Smith, who works as an assistant manager at Jimmy Johns, said she walked away from the Feb. 20 incident feeling extreme gratitude.
“I feel like everybody was watched out for, even the people on the ground,” she said. “It’s eerie for me to think there were so many possibilities and so many opportunities for people to be harmed, but not a single soul was harmed. I’m humbled and grateful.”
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