April 2, 2011 -- Southwest Airlines is grounding 79 of its Boeing 737 planes after the ceiling of a flight out of Phoenix tore open in mid-air Friday, which prompted a sudden loss of cabin pressure, a rapid descent and an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Ariz.
Southwest Airlines reported no customer injuries aboard Flight 812, but said a flight attendant suffered a "minor injury upon descent."
The airline referred to a flight attendant who fell and injured his or her nose, passenger Brenda Reese told The Associated Press. Reese added that some people "were passing out because they weren't getting the oxygen" from masks that dropped from above during the emergency.
"The safety of our Customers and Employees is our primary concern," said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "We are working closely with Boeing to conduct these proactive inspections and support the investigation. We also are working aggressively to attempt to minimize the impact to our Customers' travel schedules today."
Southwest said it is working with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration to determine the cause of the "depressurization event," and the airline plans to cancel approximately 300 flights on Saturday and customers may experience delays of up to two hours, according to a company statement.
The Southwest flight, a Boeing 737, had taken off from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport around 3:45 p.m. local time, bound for Sacramento, Calif., with 118 passengers on board. The passengers have received a full refund and two complimentary roundtrip passes on Southwest flights.
For the first 20 minutes of the flight, all appeared normal as the plane climbed to 36,000 feet. Flight attendants had just taken drink orders when passengers reported hearing loud pops.
Soon, the roof opened up. Astonished passengers described a gaping hole, perhaps three to four feet long and a foot wide, right next to the luggage compartment.
The plane suffered a rapid decompression, oxygen masks popped out and the plane went into a dive, according to passengers and officials.
The Southwest pilots radioed air traffic control, declared an emergency, and began a rapid descent -- quickly diving to a lower altitude so passengers would be able to breathe on their own.
The jet plunged from 36,000 to 19,000 feet in just one minute. Within five minutes, it reached the safer altitude of 11,000 feet.
Some terrified passengers clearly thought it was the end. One women whose husband was on the plane received a text from him -- "Plane going down. Love you."
Hole in Southwest Airlines Plane's Fuselage Forces Emergency Landing in Yuma, Ariz.
However, the plane was able to land at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station/International Airport at 4:07 p.m. Friday, said Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Passengers thankful to be on the ground called loved ones and waited for a new Southwest jet to pick them up and take them on their way.
What caused the hole in the plane's fuselage was not immediately clear. The National Transportation Safety Board said it was launching a formal investigation into the incident, and that an "in-flight fuselage rupture" led to the drop in cabin pressure aboard the plane.
Boeing and the FAA also were investigating.
It appeared the tear was to the plane's skin, its outer protective metal, not the jet's internal structure, an aviation expert told ABC News.
The jet was built in 1996, according to an FAA database, making it 15 years old, not ancient by aviation standards.
However, Southwest planes get a big workout because they do so many takeoffs and landings a day, which puts stress on the metal fuselage.
Two years ago, a hole opened up in the fuselage of another Southwest plane, a jet also 15 years old. Investigators blamed fatigue cracks, and Boeing ordered extra inspections for its 737s.
In 1998, a flight attendant died after being sucked out of a hole in the ceiling of an Aloha Airlines flight over Hawaii after cracks caused part of the ceiling on that Boeing 737 to peel open.
Hours after their emergency landing in Yuma, Southwest Flight 812's passengers arrived in Sacramento aboard a reserve plane.
Ashley Main was delighted that her boyfriend was safe and sound. She'd been waiting for hours, ever since receiving a frightening text message.
"He sent me a text when he was on the ground and told me there was a hole in the ceiling of the plane and told me he was all right and did assure me that -- but I don't believe him," she said. "My heart sank. I have a fear of flying anyway and it scares me to think he could be lost to me."