The first boom came about 30 minutes into the flight. Moments later, another shook the plane as it flew Sunday night from Boston to Miami with 180 passengers aboard. That’s when passengers reported seeing fire shooting out of the engine on the left wing, and the cabin filled with smoke.
“We were just waiting for the worst,” said E. Mauricio Castellanos, a professor at the University of Florida College of Dentistry who was traveling with his wife and their 5-year-old son. “I said goodbye to my wife, and was holding my son. We really thought we were going to die.”
On Monday, American Airlines officials said merely that there was a mechanical problem on the flight. But those on board described a much more terrifying ordeal, with passengers — and at least one crew member — weeping and fearing for their lives before Flight 1086 made an emergency landing at Kennedy International Airport in New York.
“The plane started to shake and rattle, and people really started to freak out,” said Drew Nederpelt, a Miami business executive who was traveling with his girlfriend. “There was a lot of crying and screaming. One of the flight attendants was literally shaking and sobbing, and we looked at each other like, ‘Somebody else has to speak through the PA.’ ”
Diego Romero, a 37-year-old dentist who was traveling with his pregnant wife, aunt, and 18-month-old daughter, said he was frustrated with how the airline handled such a traumatic experience. After the plane landed, he said, passengers were given sandwiches and drinks, but little else.
“Everybody was happy to be alive, and they told us they were going to have another flight. But there was never a public relations person to talk to us and try to calm us down,” Romero said. “It’s just the way American Airlines handled the whole thing, like they were just washing their hands and saying, ‘We’re not responsible.’ ”
David Martinez-Delgado, a Miami construction manager who was flying home after attending a convention in Boston, said he also felt mistreated. “They handled this as if it were a late flight,” he said. “I felt they were trying to minimize the problem.”
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said Monday that the airline’s staff planned to “reach out” to the passengers. “We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience,” he said. “We understand it was stressful and made for a long evening, night, and morning.”
He said crews were examining the plane, an Airbus A321, to determine the cause of the problem.
Initially, the flight was uneventful as a full plane left Logan International Airport at about 5:30 p.m., passengers said. Then the two loud bangs suddenly jolted everyone on board.
“That’s when my aunt sitting next to the window said, ‘Oh my god, there is fire coming out of the engine,’ ” said Romero, who was traveling home to Miami after a conference. “She actually saw the flames coming out.”
Passengers said a pilot announced that a clogged filter was causing oil to leak onto the engine.
As the cabin filled with smoke, flight attendants started racing through the aisles, and passengers screamed. Romero said the flight attendant who sobbed over the public address system made the passengers more frightened than they already were.
“She was a nervous wreck,” he said. “So, as a passenger, you hear somebody who is supposed to be in charge being so worried and crying, my wife turned to me and said, ‘I think it’s worse than we think, and they don’t want us to know.’ ”
The oxygen masks didn’t deploy, but passengers were instructed to get into the “brace position” with their heads on the seats in front of them as the crew prepared for landing.
“I couldn’t help thinking we were probably not going to make it, especially with the heavy smoke,” Romero said. “It was a horrific experience.”
At 6:30 p.m. — roughly 25 minutes after the two bangs rattled the flight — the plane landed, and “everybody exploded into applause and cheers,” Nederpelt said.
He said he was grateful to a flight attendant named Evelyn who helped him and others in his area of the plane remain calm. He wrote a poem about her, titled “Thank you, Evelyn.”
“The absolute terror when the plane begins to shake and rattle,’’ reads one passage. “And I hear her voice say, ‘We’re going to be fine, happens all the time.’ ”
Castellanos said he, too, felt nothing but gratitude for the pilots and crew who landed the plane safely, but was still shaken a day later — and was not planning to fly on American again.
“Actually, we just bought a flight on Delta,” he said, “so we are switching airlines.”