Passenger recalls jumbo terror

A passenger today described the terror of being on a packed passenger jumbo jet when a gaping hole appeared in the fuselage 30,000ft in the air.

George Kierans, from Drogheda, and his wife were on the Qantas Boeing 747 which was flying from London to Melbourne when flooring gave way, part of the ceiling collapsed and debris flew into the first class cabin.

Frightened passengers, some of whom were woken up by a loud bang, had to don oxygen masks as the plane descended after losing cabin pressure on the Hong Kong-Melbourne leg of the flight today.

"It was just in the middle of when the meals were being served. There was a loud explosion in the cabin and the plane suddenly plummeted from the sky," said Mr Kierans.

"At that stage obviously oxygen masks and everything fell down and nobody had any idea what was going on."

Film shot by passengers and displayed on websites showed the scenes on board the plane as the captain announced that he was making for Manila in the Philippines for an emergency landing.

Passengers spoke of "part of the ceiling" flying past them, while others told how children were crying.

Some aboard vomited after the plane managed to land safely at Manila, with all 346 passengers and 19 crew able to disembark normally.

On film, applause for the crew from the passengers as the plane touched down could clearly be heard.

"For three or four minutes it was very scary stuff," said Mr Kierans, speaking to RTE radio from a hotel room in Manila.

"Obviously when the masks shoot down in front of you, you do realise you're definitely in a very dangerous situation.

"I actually thought it was an engine blew originally. The plane seemed to tilt considerably to one side."

But Mr Kierans, who was travelling to visit his son in Australia, said passengers didn't erupt into blind panic as the mid-air drama was unfolding inside the plane.

"There actually wasn't really any great panic on the plane. I think most people were in a state of shock," he said.

"I don't think anybody had an idea of what was happening.

"The pilot did come on air a couple of minutes later and just said to everybody to stay in their positions and he would keep in touch with what was happening.

"But as you looked out the window of the plane you could see they were burning off fuel and he switched off two of the engines.

"At that stage the plane was at a very low altitude."

As air accident investigators probed the cause of the incident, passengers, who spent Thursday night in Manila, were flying on to Melbourne in a replacement Qantas Boeing 747.

Initial investigations suggested that a section of fuselage had separated and that there had been an "explosive decompression".

Pictures of the stricken plane at Manila showed a large hole - about 3m in diameter - in the aircraft's fuselage through which luggage could be seen.

Mr Kierans said it was only when passengers got onto the runway that they realised the extent of the damage.

"When we went to the far side to see the hole, we knew definitely that we had one very lucky escape," he said.

Manila airport spokesman Octavio Lina said: "There is a big hole in the belly of the aircraft near the right wing, about three metres in diameter.

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

Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon said: "All 346 passengers and 19 crew disembarked normally and there were no reports of any injuries to passengers or crew."

He added that the flight crew performed emergency procedures after oxygen masks were deployed. Initial inspections revealed the aircraft sustained a hole in its fuselage, and it was being inspected by engineers.

Praising the crew, he said: "This was a highly unusual situation and our crew responded with the professionalism that Qantas is known for."