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FAA, NTSB Investigating United Airlines Midair Engine Explosion Which Sent Debris Falling Onto Neighborhoods

DENVER (CBSLA/AP) — Passengers settling back into airplane seats and starting to relax on the way to Hawaii were terrified when a huge explosion and flash of light interrupted an in-flight announcement.

Plane Engine Failure
A large piece of an airplane engine in the front yard of Kirby Klements on Elmwood St. near E. 13th Ave February 20, 2021. A United 777 airplane had an engine fail above and scattered parts over the entire nearby neighborhood and Broomfield Commons Park. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)"n"n

A Boeing 777-200 headed from Denver to Honolulu on Saturday with 231 passengers and 10 crew aboard, suffered a catastrophic failure in its right engine and flames erupted under the wing as the plane began to lose altitude.

"This is extremely rare," Captain Laura Einsetler, a veteran pilot for a major airline, told CBSLA Sunday. "We normally don't have engine issues, these manufacturers build these airplanes, and these engines to last for tens of thousands of flight hours." 

People reacted in horror as huge pieces of the engine casing and chunks of fiberglass rained down on a sports fields and on streets and lawns in Denver suburbs, just missing one home and crushing a truck.

The explosion, visible from the ground, left a trail of black smoke in the sky, and tiny pieces of insulation filled the air like ash.

The plane returned safely and landed at Denver International Airport, and no one on board or on the ground was hurt, authorities said.

"This is an excellent example of people should feel confident in flying, not afraid, I know it's a little, it's obviously disconcerting to see that, but you can see how well built these jets are, the airbus make excellent airplanes, and when you have experienced pilots well-trained, then that's what we're there for, to have those moments of time to rise to the occasion," added Einsetler. 

Both those in the air and on the ground were deeply shaken, however.

"I really thought it was a bomb on the plane," said Simona Delucia, a nurse who says she immediately told husband David and friends Karla and Jeff Whichard to stuff their wallets in their pockets so they could be easily identified if the plane went down.

The group, a total of 6, were traveling from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and excited for vacation.

Boeing released a statement about the incident saying, in part:

Boeing is actively monitoring recent events related to United Airlines Flight 328. While the NTSB investigation is ongoing, we recommended suspending operations of the 69 in-service and 59 in-storage 777s powered by Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engines until the FAA identifies the appropriate inspection protocol. 

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said that two of the engine's fan blades were fractured and the remainder of the fan blades "exhibited damage." But it cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about what happened.

United says it will work closely with the FAA and the NTSB "to determine any additional steps that are needed to ensure these aircraft meet our rigorous safety standards and can return to service."

The NTSB said the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were transported to its lab in Washington so the data can be analyzed. NTSB investigations can take up to a year or longer, although in major cases the agency generally releases some investigative material midway through the process.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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