BRAINERD, Minn. — It started as a brief explosion — a burst of light through the windows, so bright it was like a flashbang, before the passengers felt a deep tremor reverberate through the frame of the aircraft unlike any sort of turbulence they’d felt before.
The images are plastered across every main page of the internet now: Nervous passengers staring out the windows. The startling image of a rattling, half-dismantled jet engine wreathed in flames. Scattered debris, some pieces large enough to crush a car, strewn on the streets of Broomfield, Colo., below.
At the time, most of this was a mystery to Maren Goff, a part-time sportswriter for the Brainerd Dispatch, who happened to be on the United Airlines Flight 328 from Denver to Honolulu Saturday afternoon, Feb. 20, on a belated honeymoon trip. (The Dispatch, like this newspaper, is owned by Forum Communications Co.)
She and her husband, Joel Martin, were seated in the back-central portion of the aircraft; in other words, not positioned next to a window. As such, the events of early Saturday afternoon were disorienting and incomplete, with the gaps only filled in later when they returned to Denver International Airport.
This was a United 777 flight from Denver to Honolulu. Engine failure (putting it mildly) after takeoff. Plane landed safely back in Denver. NO INJURIES. Separate vids on tw of large engine pieces falling to ground. NTSB already involved. https://t.co/mQsnnKPykl
This was a United 777 flight from Denver to Honolulu. Engine failure (putting it mildly) after takeoff. Plane landed safely back in Denver. NO INJURIES. Separate vids on tw of large engine pieces falling to ground. NTSB already involved. https://t.co/mQsnnKPykl— Kurt Siegelin (@kurtsiegelin) February 20, 2021
“As we were taking off, (the pilot) said that we were going to expect some turbulence flying over the Rockies anyways, so just a heads up for that,” Goff said during a phone interview Sunday, Feb. 21. She noted it was roughly 10 to 15 minutes into the flight that things went haywire. “We were doing the 10,000 feet announcement and there's a big flash and a bang. And they're like, ‘Oh, something happened. We'll get back to you.’”
That something was catastrophic engine failure in the Boeing 777-200’s right engine. Judging by footage of the incident taken by another member of the 231 passenger roster, much of the engine’s housing was ripped off, revealing the internal components, which continued to whirl despite a blanket of thick, oily tongues of flame the clung to the engine as they dissipated into the jet stream.
—AUDIO FROM COCKPIT—
Air traffic radio captured the moment United Pilots called out mayday as their engine failed over #Denver.
Plane landed safely, but scattered debris throughout the metro area.@CBSDenver https://t.co/yZnCNMbiQW pic.twitter.com/dKBTdPLFFK
—AUDIO FROM COCKPIT—
From Goff and Martin’s perspective, this incident resulted in a disturbing series of tremors that rolled through the aircraft, but it wasn’t until flight attendants of the 10-member crew stopped by and told them to remain seated that they felt afraid. Despite a veneer of calm professionalism, Goff said, the pilots and crew couldn’t mask nervousness creeping into their voices.
“It was definitely more of a white-knuckle situation,” Goff said of the tense moments on the plane. “Nobody had any outbursts or anything, but you could tell people were kind of like ‘What just happened?’ ‘Did everyone just see that flash?’ It was surreal. It was a tense calm. I think everyone knew that something was not right.”
Goff said that pilots turned the plane around immediately and, within half an hour, they were back on the ground. It was only after the fact — when fellow passengers showed recorded footage on their phones, or when Goff and Martin were able to scour social media much like the rest of America — that they understood the enormity of what happened. They’d dodged a proverbial bullet. Other passengers, she said, just opted to cancel their journey altogether and return home.
“The pilots did a really great job of keeping the plane steady. Flying with one engine, I imagine, is not the easiest thing to do and they did such a great job,” Goff said. “As soon as the plane landed on the runway in Denver, that was a startling moment. The closer you were to it, the more startling it was for us. It’s a surreal realization of the situation. We knew something was wrong, but we didn't know how dire the situation was.”