A woman was apparently sucked out of an airborne corporate plane as the passenger in front of her made a desperate attempt to save her — and pilots didn’t know it until they reached they landed.
FBI agents investigating a woman’s 2,000-foot fall Thursday night have ruled out foul play and are treating it as an accident or a suicide. The passenger who tried to save her felt a strange sensation, turned around, and saw the woman being sucked out an open emergency exit door, agent Andy Black said. With other passengers watching, the man held on to her as long as he could, but finally had to let go to avoid being sucked out as well.
The co-pilot emerged from the cockpit and quickly closed the door to keep the other passengers out of danger. The man who tried to save the woman and other passengers tried to tell the co-pilot what had happened, but he did not hear them because of the loud whooshing sound generated by the open plane door and the chaos of the situation.
“It’s a very dangerous situation when a door flies open in a moving plane,” said Black. “The co-pilot came to the back of the plane and immediately secured the door so that no one else would be in danger. What happened was that the other passengers tried to tell him he lost a passenger, but in the confusion of the situation and the loud noise of the wind rushing into the plane, he apparently didn’t hear them.”
The pilots did not realize they had lost a passenger until the plane landed at San Jose International Airport at 6:05 p.m. Based on the accounts of the male passenger and others who saw the woman fall out of the plane, Black said, murder has been ruled out. Keeping in mind the woman’s plunge could have been an accident, Black said investigators are considering the possibility it could have been a suicide.
“It’s a very possible,” Black said. “This is a bizarre case that just keeps getting more bizarre.”
Sacramento police said late today they found what they believe are the remains of the woman in the back of a garden there. The woman, an employee of Hewlett-Packard’s purchasing department, was from the San Francisco Bay area, according to the company and the FBI. Her name is being withheld until her parents are located and informed. Meanwhile, Black said, FBI agents plan to question the woman’s husband and her co-workers.
The twin-engine turboprop plane, leased by Hewlett-Packard for use as an employee shuttle, was carrying five passengers and two crew members when it took off from Lincoln Regional Airport, which serves the town of Roseville north of Sacramento. The plane had 18 seats, so it was far from full.
The plane flies regularly between Roseville and San Jose, two California cities where Hewlett-Packard has offices, the FAA said. The company is headquartered in Palo Alto, near San Jose.
Police spokesmen and the FBI offered this re-creation of the event, based on initial reports: Shortly after departing the Lincoln airport, the pilot noticed a warning light indicating an unlocked door. The plane made an emergency landing at Sacramento Executive Airport to check on the door, then took off again.
But at 5:23 p.m. local time, about 5 miles southeast of Sacramento, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, the door opened again and the woman apparently fell or jumped out, police said.
After landing, pilots realized they had lost a passenger. A man called 911 at 6:49 p.m., Peterson said. The 44-minute gap in reporting the incident remains unexplained. The woman’s husband was at the San Jose airport waiting for her to arrive when he heard the news.
According to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jerry Snyder, the initial report to the FAA was that woman jumped. Snyder said the FAA ruled out the possibility that a mechanical malfunction caused the door to open.Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said authorities weren’t sure how the emergency exit was opened.
“At this point there doesn’t appear to be any mechanical issues involved,” he said.
Hewlett-Packard, in a statement, said it was “deeply concerned and [is] helping authorities to determine what happened,” but declined to provide any additional information.
The aircraft was a Canadian-built De Havilland DHC-6-300, a twin turboprop plane also known as a Twin Otter, said Bruce Nelson, an operations officer with the FAA in Los Angeles.
No longer manufactured, but still sold on the secondhand market, the Twin Otter is an extremely popular small aircraft currently in use by businesses, commuter airlines and the U.S. military. Manufacturer De Havilland is now owned by Canadian transportation giant Bombardier.
ABCNEWS’ Kevin Wing in San Francisco, ABCNEWS.com’s Sascha Segan and Bryan Robinson, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.