An American Airlines flight lurched violently over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, sending drinks and people flying — and putting 10 in the hospital after landing in Philadelphia.
Alex Ehmke and his family had spent nearly 10 hours in the air — flying home from a vacation in Europe, he told The Washington Post. Flight attendants were handing out a last round of drinks before landing, and the U.S. shore had just come into view.
“It had been completely uneventful,” Ehmke said. “It looked like a nice day.”
He and his wife got their coffees. Five minutes or so passed.
What happened next is a bit of blur to Ehmke, but he recalled an announcement urging passengers to fasten their seat belts, though the safety light was already on.
Another passenger, Ian Smith, told ABC affiliate WPVI that flight attendants were told to return to their seats, too.
“They didn’t even have time,” he said.
It began with a few seconds of shaking — not severe, the sort of turbulence any frequent flier gets used to.
“I was fine,” Ehmke recalled. “This is all within normal bounds.”
But the shaking got worse. Ehmke saw drinks spilling and sensed a faint panic in the aisles. Still, he wasn’t worried.
Then, suddenly, what he calls “the lurch.”
He would later tell NBC News that everything in his field of vision shot up four feet in the air, and he would tell WPVI that “it felt like the whole plane was in free fall.”
Other passengers would later report screaming and babies crying. Ehmke didn’t recall that but can relive the surreal experience of beverages suddenly being severed from gravity.
“The liquid catches your eye,” he told The Post. “I saw all the drinks fly up at once.”
This seemed amusing at first, when the plane settled down and Ehmke and his family had a chance to collect their thoughts.
“I was wearing half of my coffee; my brother was wearing the other half,” he said. “My wife ended up with a pastry in her cup that was not hers.”
His wife, a reporter for ProPublica, documented the aftermath on Twitter: beverages sprayed across the ceiling of an Airbus A333, coffee trapped in the housing of the cabin lights.
But in the row behind him, Ehmke said, a man had flown up from his seat, hit the ceiling and landed on his father — hard.
The man was one of three passengers who would be hospitalized after the plane landed.
According to American, the other seven injured were crew members.
All the flight attendants disappeared from the main cabin after the jolt, Ehmke said. He and the other passengers took stock of their soaked clothes and the trash-strewn plane and tried to laugh off the fright.
After a few minutes, one of the crew members reappeared, Ehmke recalled, and told the passengers, “I’m the only flight attendant that is able to help everyone right now.”
The others, he gathered, needed help themselves.
Ehmke would later see the attendant who had served him throughout the flight with a sling on her arm and two passengers with ice packs on their heads.
The plane didn’t divert to another airport. In the half-hour or so before it reached Philadelphia, Ehmke said, the pilot apologized for what the Federal Aviation Administration and American Airlines later described as “severe turbulence,” cause unknown.
“He said another plane had flown through previously and reported only moderate turbulence,” Ehmke recalled of the pilot’s speech. “So they didn’t try to go around it or predict it was as bad as it was.”
When another crew member took the microphone to explain how people would get off the plane, Ehmke said, “it was the most shaken I’ve ever heard flight staff sound. She clearly didn’t know what was next.”
What was next was a safe landing at Philadelphia International Airport, where paramedics were standing by.
American Airlines didn’t provide details about the 10 people hospitalized but said all had been released by Sunday morning.
“We want to thank our team members for taking care of our customers,” the airline said in a statement.
American called Ehmke’s wife to check up on her after she tweeted about the incident. She and her husband praised the flight crew’s response to what — for a split second, at least — had felt like a plane falling out of the sky.
“I was worried people would take it out on the pilot or staff,” Ehmke said. “I’m not, by any means, technically informed about aviation, but from my perspective these things happen.”