Everybody Has a Story: Fate’s fickle game of chance favors air traveler

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I’ve heard it said that fate is a fickle game of chance. It was proved to me on April 4 on United Flight 1727 from Tampa, Fla., to Houston, en route to Portland and home in Washougal.

I had resigned myself that I was not going to make the flight out of Tampa as I stood at the TSA checkpoint with time dwindling for a 6:30 a.m. departure. I was only one of many in this predicament, and the gate agent lobbied to have me and a dozen or so of my fellow passengers advanced to the front of the queue. We hustled onto the plane.

All went well for the first hour or so of the flight. However, as we approached the storm-ravaged area southwest of Texas, conditions became increasingly turbulent.

Being a seasoned flyer, the conditions were not at all alarming to me, just mildly bumpy -- not even enough to rouse me from my nap or to tighten my seat belt.

A sudden forward lurch had me reaching for my drink and then the bottom literally fell out from under the aircraft! We plummeted for what seemed like an eternity. Those of us with loose seat belts careened off the overhead bins. (The “seat belt” light was on, and when they say secure your seat belt low and tight, they mean it!)

I distinctly remember seeing all the overhead storage bins on the starboard side fly open. Then, at the bottom of the fall, they all simultaneously slammed shut again. The hit at the bottom of the fall, when everyone crashed back into their seats, was so violent that it felt as though we had hit the ground.

The consolidated grunt of all those passengers getting the wind knocked out of them was audible, even over the sound of the screaming turbines that had been powered up to attempt to arrest the free fall. The plane was now in a drastic nose-down attitude. I don’t know if this was a part of the dynamic of the event or a deliberate attempt by the pilot to regain control. I reached down to tighten my seat belt and instead inadvertently unlatched it.

The plane went into a second dramatic downward plunge, this time accompanied by a violent roll. I was still clutching at one strap of my seat belt and was keeping myself pinned to the left side of the fuselage (now effectively the floor) and the overhead bin. For the first time in flying almost 500,000 miles, I thought I might actually die in a crash.

As the pilot began to right the plane once again, we hit bottom, and I was slammed not so much down, but into the back of my seat, which was broken by the impact. I fumbled for and was able to latch my seat belt.

As I began to regain my composure, I became aware of the acrid scent of vomit. Hysterical screams had given way to the sounds of sobbing and murmurs of prayer. The twisted wreck of someone’s laptop computer lay at my feet. The passenger seated next to me asked if the intact pair of Ray Ban sunglasses that appeared in the seat between us were mine. They weren’t. We commented to each other that our ears were ringing, and I noticed that the oxygen masks in the row in front of me had deployed; but I suspect that it was a result of the jostling, not a change in air pressure. The assault on my inner ear had made me nauseous, too. In a strange irony, the barf bag was right at hand because the contents of the seat back pockets had been scattered about.

The captain came on the intercom and informed the crew and cabin that he had declared an emergency, that Houston was still our destination and calmly but tersely instructed all on board what to do when we landed. A successful landing brought a most heartfelt round of applause. I hear now, a day later, that we fell a vertical mile. I’m sure glad that we weren’t at 5,000 feet! I guess that’s fate.

Thank goodness this Boeing 737 was a stout aircraft.

Another irony is that the passenger next to me was flying to Houston to interview for a flight attendant’s job with United.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don’t have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send submissions to neighbors@columbian.com or “Everybody Has a Story,” P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.