HONOLULU--A gaping hole ripped open on the right side of a United Airlines jumbo jet carrying 354 people yesterday, sucking as many as 16 passengers to their death 20,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, authorities said.
The pilot brought the Boeing 747 back safely for an emergency landing, with at least 14 passengers injured. Two of the engines had failed, but it wasn't clear whether the failure was connected with the fuselage ripping open.
Federal aviation investigators had not determined the cause of the hole, but were leaning toward structural failure as the likeliest explanation. Initial reports from the pilot and some passengers indicated they had heard an explosion.
"All of a sudden, I could see the sky and feel the wind," said passenger Koji Yamamoto, 23, of Osaka, Japan. "The roof was breaking. Something was blowing toward us."
United's Flight 811, which originated in San Francisco and Los Angeles, had departed Honolulu International Airport with 336 passengers and 18 crew members at 1:53 a.m. (6:53 a.m. EST) for Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. It returned 59 minutes later with a 10-by-40-foot vertical hole in its right side near the front of the craft.
"There is an area where there used to be a cargo door and it's not there any more," said Eugene Glenn, special agent in charge of the Honolulu FBI office. But Glenn said it was not known whether the loss of the cargo door was a cause of the accident or a result.
Lawrence M. Nagin, a United senior vice president, told a news conference in Chicago that 16 people were unaccounted for. Initially, federal investigators had estimated the number of missing passengers between 8 and 11.
A Hawaii transportation department spokesperson said the coroner's office was called in to investigate whether one body might still be on board.
"We still have no basis on which to discern whether the damage was caused by a bomb, or whether it was structural damage caused by some internal failure," said U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the House aviation subcommittee, after consulting with federal officials investigating the incident.
He said he thought the "likeliest explanation" for the damage was stress failure, perhaps compounded by maintenance problems. The ripping away of the fuselage skin appeared to have occurred along rivet lines, he said.
The Seattle Times, citing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records, reported that United Airlines filed a "service difficulty report" in January 1987 on the 19-year-old jet after mechanics found cracks and corrosion around the pylon of the Number 3 engine.
Bobbie Mardis, and FAA spokesperson in Oklahoma City where the agency's safety files are kept, said the aircraft's history also included an engine fire in 1986.
But United spokesperson Nagin said the craft underwent a complete, four-day inspection 88 days ago, and a less intensive check on February 16.
"It has no history of maintenance problems. This aircraft had a routine maintenance history," Nagin told reporters in Chicago.
FAA spokesperson John Leyden in Washington said the pilot reported losing power in one right-side engine nine minutes after takeoff and, after turning to Honolulu, eight minutes later radioed he had lost power in the other right-side engine.
The FBI sent bomb experts to the investigation, "but a determination of whether it was a bomb has not been made," said FBI spokesperson Harlan Frymire.
At least 14 people suffered minor injuries. Eleven were hospitalized, including three crew members, according to a United spokesperson. A 49-year-old woman was in guarded condition in intensive care at Queen's Medical Center with cervical and abdominal injuries.
In December, an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 with 104 passengers and six crew aboard was forced to land at Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., after a 14-inch hole opened in its fuselage at 31,000 feet.
Last April 28, a flight attendant was killed and 61 persons were injured when a portion of the fuselage on a Boeing 737 peeled off during an Aloha flight fron Hilo to Honolulu.
Tiny cracks were found later in nearly half the aging Boeing 737 jetliners inspected in the months following the Aloha accident.