MINUTES of terror on board the ill-fated United Airlines Flight 811 has led to a lifetime of connections and friendships for survivors Ben and Barbara Mohide of Narooma.
The couple last week finally got to meet in person one of their fellow survivors, Beverley Thomas, nee Nisbet, who came over from her home in Hawkes Bay in New Zealand to Australia for a visit.
Ben and Barbara vaguely remember seeing Beverley after the flight and although they never spoke at the time, now they have a bond forged in their mutual experiences at 20,000 feet.
United Airlines Flight 811 had just taken off from Honolulu, Hawaii bound for Sydney with a stop-over in Auckland, New Zealand on the night of February 24, 1989 when disaster struck.
Investigations revealed that a faulty locking mechanism on one of the Boeing 747’s cargo doors failed, ripping off the door and blowing a huge hole in the side of the aircraft.
Nine people were sucked out through the hole but the survivors credit captain David Cronin for doing a remarkable job of landing the stricken aircraft back in Honolulu with only two engines.
“As one of the headlines said at the time, we waited for death and then for deliverance,” Beverley said.
Before boarding, they all say they noticed how old and worn the 19-year-old plane appeared with Barbara saying she noticed a horrible, strange smell when stepping aboard as if by some premonition she could tell something was going to go wrong.
Beverley was sitting only six rows back from the seats where the passengers were sucked out of the hole. She even managed to take two photographs in the aftermath that ended up being published as part of the news coverage at the time.
Seeing each other again allowed all three of them to remember more details such as how glasses became embedded in the walls of the plane and how ice from drinks smashed them in the faces.
“It all seems just as vivid 24 years on as it was back then,” Beverley said.
“I don’t think about it every day like I did for 10 years.”
They recalled the ripping, hissing sound and then loud bang as the right side of the plane was ripped apart like a tin can.
The flight had only been in the air for 16 minutes when the door failed and it took 14 minutes of sheer terror to get back to Honolulu.
Captain Cronin immediately took the aircraft down to 15,000 foot so passengers could again breathe without oxygen.
A neck cushion that Beverley had just inflated swelled in the drop of pressure, was sucked out of the hole and was found floating in the ocean days later and returned to her.
She joked as a school teacher, she was inclined to write her name on everything.
In the year following the accident, Ben had his book “Hawaiian Nightmare” published and Beverley saw an article on the book in a woman’s magazine, but was unable to contact Ben because they had moved houses in Sydney where they were living at the time.
More than 20 years went by and Ben came to Beverley’s attention again when his comments were featured in news coverage following the sudden death of captain Cronin in October 2010.
This time she was able to make contact with the Mohides and start planning a visit when next she travelled to Australia.
This reunion finally took place last week when Beverley arrived and spent a couple of days reminiscing about the disaster.
All the survivors draw strength from each other and over the years have kept in contact individually or through the 811 club of former passengers.
Beverley herself was asked by one of captain Cronin’s daughter to scatter some of his ashes on a New Zealand mountain top, and together with that daughter Kathy and the parents of young New Zealander Lee Campbell who was sucked out of the plane, she ended up scattering those ashes.
Ben and Barbara meanwhile a few years back were also visited by one of the flight attendants on that flight, Laura Brentlinger, who helped them down the emergency chute.
It was sliding down the emergency chute that Beverley sustained a serious injury making her one of the most seriously injured survivors, with photographs she has showing a massive bruise on her back.
Beverley, who has collected the news clippings following the accident and who sometimes gives talks about surviving an air disaster, had a number of brushes with death on that ill-fated holiday to visit her daughter.
On that same overseas trip, she flew on Pan Am Flight 100 from New York to London landing just a short time later after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Then a few weeks later, the same British Midland airliner that she flew from London to Ireland crashed into the MI motorway a few days later.
Finally, she boarded Flight 811, survived the accident but ended up in a Honolulu hospital for days while her fellow surviving passengers continued on their way home.
To this day, flying is still a scary ordeal for her, so she only flies Air New Zealand and Qantas.