Panic in the cabin at 29,000 feet

Passengers describe their terror as huge chunk of fuselage breaks off Qantas plane in mid-air

First they heard the bang, a thudding explosion on one side of the plane. It instantly told those on board Qantas flight QF30, en route to Melbourne and 29,000ft in the air, that there was a serious problem.

A slab of the 747's fuselage, described as "the size of a mini-van" had broken off the plane's body. As huge gusts of wind burst through the cabin and swirling debris filled the air, oxygen masks descended from the ceiling.

The plane plunged thousands of feet in a matter of minutes. Screens on the back of passengers' seats told the story, with altitude readings quickly falling from five- to four-digit numbers. Cabin staff were dispatched to calm passengers down. For the most part, they were successful

Experts say the probable cause was an explosion of some sort, although not necessarily from a bomb. Failing that, some sort of corrosive material could have been gnawing away at the plane's hull, eventually tearing it and creating a hole that gradually grew in size before succumbing to pressure.

Either way, the 346 passengers and 19 crew on board, none of whom were hurt, would later share tales of their brush with death. Dramatic mobile phone footage, which showed cabin crew exuding a calm authority, captured the saga for posterity.

Debra Manchester, a housewife from Buckinghamshire, who was travelling first class, said there was a "huge bang" and a "massive rush of wind".

"Newspapers and what looked like part of the ceiling flew past me," she said. "We didn't know what was happening to the plane. After a while things calmed down and there was a deadly silence. There was still debris all around our feet but we all started to feel a bit safer when we could take our masks off."

The aircraft, which was about 200 miles from Manila when it underwent "rapid decompression", plunged nearly 20,000ft before being levelled out by the pilot. The flight, which originated in London, left Hong Kong at 9am (0200 BST) yesterday and was due to land in Melbourne at 9.45pm.

Another passenger, Sarah Lucas, who was returning to Melbourne, said she saw a gash where the wing intersects the fuselage. "We were in the business class cabin and we heard a loud bang. We thought one of the doors had become open because there were a lot of papers rushing through the cabin," she said.

The pilot made regular announcements to crew but passengers were not told what had happened. Cabin crew were applauded for successfully calming passengers and maintaining order until the landing.

"The crew were terrific, they were really good, they kept everyone calm and told people what to do and helped them with their masks and things," said Brendan McClements, an Australian businessman. "Their reactions had a very calm effect on the other passengers."

Ding Lima, an operations officer at Manila airport, said the loss of cabin pressure prompted the pilot to radio him about an emergency landing.

"Upon disembarkation, there were some passengers who vomited. You can see in their faces they were really scared," he said.

Geoff Dixon, chief executive of Qantas, said engineers were investigating the incident. The incident could cause serious damage to Qantas's reputation. Yesterday's emergency landing was the fourth time this year there has been a major technical fault on a Qantas aircraft.

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