Terror at 26,000 Feet

Twenty minutes after taking off on Monday, Alaska Airlines Flight 536 lost cabin pressure at 26,000 feet and began to plunge. The pilot of the MD-80 jet, en route from Seattle to Burbank, Calif., immediately headed back to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an emergency landing.

"The first thing that we heard was a pop, and our ears started to pop rather fast," passenger Damon Zwicker told "Good Morning America" today. "And then cold air started to come in from the vents above, which was a little bit scary. We knew something was wrong. From there, there was a period of time where I'm not sure exactly how long it was, probably 30 to 45 seconds, I think, when there was another kind of crash and the oxygen masks flipped down."

The pilot didn't make an announcement right away, Zwicker said. The flight attendants spoke first, making sure everyone had their oxygen masks on. The aircraft was quickly stabilized, but passengers spent the next 25 minutes tearful and anxious until the plane safely made an emergency landing.

Passenger Leslie Comstock, Zwicker's girlfriend, said that it was the "scariest thing that's ever happened in my life." Yet aside from a cat howling, she said, there was little panic on board. None of the 140 passengers on board was hurt.

The problem: a 6-by-12-inch hole in the fuselage that caused depressurization. A ground worker now admits he punctured the fuselage and didn't tell anyone before takeoff. The nick opened into a large gap as the plane ascended. The worker was employed by Menzies Aviation, a British company that Alaska contracts with to provide baggage handling and other ramp services at the Seattle airport.

"When he was putting equipment up to the aircraft, in preparation of moving baggage, he contacted the aircraft improperly, and just kind of creased it," said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Jim Struhsaker.

Comstock, who used to handle baggage for an airline, said she was "pretty upset" when she found out the cause of the plane's problems because "it's something that should never happen."

"When I worked for the airline, I wanted to make sure that the people on the plane were the safest, you know," Comstock said. "If I accidentally hit the plane or did any sort of damage, I would immediately tell somebody before it got off the ground."

Both Zwicker and Comstock said they empathized with the worker, who they surmised kept quiet because he was afraid of getting fired.

"I guess I have a little bit of compassion because he probably just didn't want to lose his job," Comstock said.

Comstock said that her experience on Flight 536 would not deter her from flying again.

"I'm still going to fly, and I think I'm still in a little bit of shock about the fact that I've experienced something like that," she said.

Alaska Airlines issued a statement: "We are working with the National Transportation Safety Board to review all information relevant in this event and ensure the ongoing safety of our aircraft both on the ground and in the air."

The Associated Press reported today that Alaska Airlines had laid off nearly 500 baggage handlers and other ramp workers at the Seattle airport in May, saying it needed to trim costs amid rising fuel prices and fierce competition from low-cost carriers.

In a statement then, Alaska said that hiring Menzies Aviation to provide those ramp services at the airport would save $13 million a year.