Stafford man recalls horror on Southwest Airlines

April 5, 2011 4:45:50 PM PDT
It's an incident that forced dozens of planes to be grounded -- a hole bursting open in a Southwest Airlines jet in mid-flight. A Houston-area man was a passenger on that flight, and he's talking about the chaos he experienced more than 30,000 feet above the ground.

The plane was flying from Phoenix to Sacramento last Friday when part of the cabin roof just ripped away.

Stafford defense attorney Derick Smith didn't think he would live to tell this story, but he spoke to us on Tuesday to get a message across. He says to always wear your seat belt and to pay attention when flight attendants tell you how to put on an oxygen mask.

Smith took a picture in the moments after the fuselage on Southwest Airlines Flight 812 ruptured.

"It's the terror and the fear that everybody imagines," he said.

Smith was sitting in the second row.

"Very loud popping noise, but for all we knew, it was an explosion," Smith said.

Cruising at about 34,000 feet, the jet tore open, leaving a five-foot-long hole in the 737's skin. Smith says things were happening quickly. He watched as one passenger after another tried to help a flight attendant who had passed out due to a lack of oxygen. Some of the passengers also fell unconscious. He knew he had to keep his mask on.

"But that's about all I could think about was breathing and thinking about the worst," Smith said.

Smith calls the pilots heroes. They quickly descended and landed safely at a military base in Yuma, Arizona. He says passengers applauded.

"I'll probably never not think about it again once I get on a plane," he said.

He's already received a letter of apology from Southwest Airlines, along with a full refund and two complimentary roundtrip tickets for future use.

The letter states in part: "We regret the frightening circumstances surrounding this situation. The safety of our customers (as well as our crewmembers) is our primary concern."

Smith hopes the airline is serious about that.

"You're just so scared. It's such a horrific thing to think about. I don't necessarily want to have to play the lottery with my odds of surviving anymore," he said.

Smith is also pushing Southwest to make some provisions to better secure children in flight. Going through this, he says, made him realize how little protection small children really have on a plane.

Smith says after the fact, he spoke to the pilots who told him about their experience in the cockpit, how they had to quickly disengage autopilot, take control and descend over 20,000 feet due to the depressurization.

He's glad to be back home safe now with his wife and young son.

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