Passenger plane headed to Pittsburgh fills with smoke, returns to Newark

Chris Togneri
| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

A Pittsburgh-bound plane filled with smoke on Thursday, frightening passengers and forcing the crew to turn the plane around and make an emergency landing at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, authorities and witnesses said.

Republic Airlines flight 4890 landed safely in Newark at 11:05 a.m. moments after taking off from the airport, authorities said. Nobody was injured.

Passengers Alex Harrison said the flight started smoothly but quickly took a terrifying turn.

“The whole plane was just completely full of smoke,” said Harrison, 23, an Isle of Mann native and former soccer player at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was actually asleep and I awoke when I heard the alarm go off.”

A stewardess announced the plane was returning to Newark but did not explain why, Harrison said.

Sara Severn, 42, of Safety Harbor, Fla., said the smoke was so thick passengers could not see from one end of the plane to the other.

“It was really weird because they didn't say anything,” said Severn, who is vacationing in Pittsburgh with her husband. “The smoke was so bad we all had our heads down between our knees with fabric covering our faces.”

The pilot made one announcement, Harrison said, telling passengers: “We're going to land in a minute; get off as quickly as possible and leave your carry-on luggage behind.”

After a bumpy descent and landing, the exit doors opened and passengers leapt several feet to the runway from the smoky plane, Harrison said.

“The smoke got worse and worse and worse, and by the time the plane stopped, it was completely full,” Harrison said. “Honestly, I couldn't see anything.”

Flight attendants wore oxygen mask when the smoke got too thick, Harrison and Severn said. When passengers asked for masks, the attendants said the plane did not have enough, they said.

“And you could tell the flight attendants were concerned when they put on masks,” Severn said.

Republic Airlines' spokesman Peter Kowalchuk said he did not know if the plane had masks for passengers.

The emergency landing was the latest scare in a summer travel season marked by aviation problems:

• On July 6, Asiana Flight 214, bound from Seoul, crashed into a seawall at San Francisco International Airport, killing two people and wounding more than 160. Inexperienced pilot Lee Gang Kuk told investigators a bright light blinded him during the descent.

• On July 7, a small plane crashed at the airport in Soldotna, Alaska, killing all 10 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board is considering several possible causes, including cargo weight and a low-altitude engine stall.

• On Monday, landing gear on a Southwest Airlines jet collapsed upon touchdown at New York City's LaGuardia Airport. Eight people, including three crew members, suffered minor injuries.

After Thursday's emergency landing at Newark, authorities closed a runway for an hour, resulting in “residual delays,” Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spokesman Steve Coleman.

Kowalchuk said passengers were placed on different flights.

Some passengers said they were too frightened to fly again, Harrison said. A woman from Harrisburg, on the flight, called her husband and told him to pick her up by car, he said.

“There were women crying and a lot of children on the plane,” Harrison said. “I was pretty nervous, to be honest. It was scary. On the way back, it was kind of rocking.

“People were very nervous. If anything goes wrong up there, there's nothing you can do.”

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