A Connecticut-bound SkyWest flight went into a sudden nose dive Wednesday, dropping 20,000 feet in minutes and terrifying dozens on board, when three passengers lost consciousness in what the crew initially feared may have been a sudden loss of cabin pressure.
The plane, which had been en route from Chicago to Bradley International in Hartford, was forced to make an emergency landing in Buffalo, the airline said.
A registered nurse on board said the crew enlisted her help when the first passenger grew faint just an hour into the flight from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Bradley International Airport in Hartford.
"They told me someone was passed out. The passenger was lethargic. Pretty much, she was responding, but her coloring was awful; she didn't look good. We got her some oxygen and she was much more alert after getting oxygen," said Niantic resident Mary Cunningham, a registered nurse. "I went back to my seat after she was feeling better, and all of a sudden, the woman sitting behind her passed out unresponsive."
It wasn't long before Cunningham, too, began to feel lightheaded and short of breath.
"I felt very nervous. I realized something was very wrong, and it was really scary," said Cunningham. "That was terrifying."
It's not clear what caused the passengers to fall ill. An aviation source said earlier that the main cabin door may have opened mid-air due to a mechanical issue, causing rapid decompression.
Officials from SkyWest later told NBC News there was no problem with the cabin door, but before the pilot knew, he descended to 10,000 feet, where the air is breathable. According to NBC News, the plane dropped more than 20,000 feet in a matter of minutes.
"One of the flight attendants was kind of in a panic. She ran up front, talked to the captain about something," said another passenger, Dave Barkley, of South Bend, Indiana. "They had a couple passengers not feeling well; one passed out, and so they took a rapid descent because the captain had said all the symptoms led him to believe it was a lack of cabin pressure."
Passengers called it a nose dive and said they could hear the engines rattling.
"It was scary," said Larry Johnson, of Fort Myers, Florida. "There was a lot of people with their heads down, praying."
The crew declared an emergency. The Embraer 170 landed safely at Buffalo International Airport at 11:40 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Authority. The passengers were ushered off the aircraft and checked by medical personnel on the ground, and none was hspitalized, the airline said.
"After examination by maintenance personnel and local authorities, there have been no indications of a pressurization problem or other issues with the aircraft," the airline said in a statement, adding that it was still investigating.
Chicopee, Massachusetts, resident Steven Marcil said he was one of about 30 passengers to receive oxygen on the ground before boarding a second plane.
"It was very traumatizing, very scary when you're actually in your seat and the seat goes into a nose dive. It was a close call, really a close call," Marcil said.
Passengers said they were asked to get off the second aircraft after boarding in Buffalo so law enforcement dogs could sniff them and sweep the plane.
"When we were in Buffalo, they had a dog go through everybody when we were sitting in the terminal, like they were looking for something, but that might have been standard procedure," said Barkley. "Fire department and dogs and policemen went onto that second plane."
Despite the fear and uncertainty, passengers commended the pilot and crew members for their quick thinking and immediate action.
"I'm grateful that they care enough about safety and security," Barkley said. "I'd rather have that than trouble otherwise."
The plane left Buffalo around 5 p.m. and arrived in Connecticut shortly after 6 p.m.
Officials with the FAA said they plan to investigate.