The plane that greeted the 143 passengers and crew at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was four hours late and lacked air-conditioning.
It got terrifyingly worse when the Boeing 737 hours later crashed into the St. Johns River off a runway in Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday night at 9:40 p.m.
Cheryl Bormann, a passenger on the military-chartered plane heading from Cuba to Jacksonville, said they were in a “universally miserable” mood when they boarded the plane but begrudgingly took their seats anyway.
She described a frantic, confusing final minutes, with the pilot seeming to lose control before the plane skidded off the runway and into the marsh of the nearby river.
All passengers and crew aboard the plane are safe and accounted for, although 22 were treated and one, a 3-month-old child, was hospitalized overnight as a precaution. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said there were no critical injuries.
The plane travelled through rain and lightning to make it to Jacksonville – but the tumultuous landing came afterward.
Bormann said the plane “literally hit the ground and then it bounced. It was clear that the pilot did not have complete control of the plane because it bounced some more, it swerved and tilted left and right.”
She added: “The pilot was trying to control it but couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it smashed into something.”
The plane skidded off the runway at the Naval Air Station Jacksonville and into the river, but it did not submerge in the water. Photos showed the plane landed in a shallow dredge of water with minimal damage.
Captain Michael Connor, a commanding officer at the station, called the safe landing “a miracle”.
CNN reported that the plane was carrying military personnel headed home, on vacation, or to get medical care. The group included families, civilians, grandparents and children connected to the military.
Bormann said that after the crash landing some oxygen masks deployed, and overhead bins opened up and sent belongings spilling out. She said her identification, cash, credit cards, computers, phone and passport were sent flying to the seats behind her.
Passengers didn’t know what happened or where they were, she said. However, she recalled that they weren’t screaming, and people helped each other put on their life vests and exit the plane onto its wing and into a raft.
Bormann told CNN that as of Friday night most passengers didn’t have the identification that authorities are asking for because their items are still on the plane.
“Everyone is sort of milling around because no one knows quite what to do. They won’t let us leave,” Bormann said. “Everybody is curious about their belongings and want to know what will happen next.”
Connor, the commanding officer, told reporters Saturday that despite the chaotic landing, those on board were “very cordial” and there wasn’t “any commotion or panic.”
While all of the passengers on board made it out OK, at least four pets aboard the plane had not been found and are presumed dead.
The pets, which included dogs and cats, were checked in the luggage department located in the bottom of the plane, the portion that was partially submerged.
Connor told reporters the status of the pets became the “second priority” for responders after it was determined all passengers were safe. He said first responders looked in the cargo bay and did not hear any animal noises or see any crates – a suggestion they were under water.
“So at that point, as well as for their own safety and not knowing if the aircraft could potentially sink and risk their lives, they backed out,” he said. He said that he later in the night had first responders do a second assessment in search of pets, but again they did not see any pet carriers above the water.
“Obviously, we do not have confirmation, but we are continuing to do what we can to positive determine the status of the pets,” he said, adding that he has spoken to some of the pet owners. “It’s a very, obviously, rough situation. My sympathy and my heart really goes out to those families.”
Authorities haven’t said what caused the plane to overshoot the runway. Naval Air Station Jacksonville is a military airport about 8 miles south of downtown.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced that it is investigating the crash landing and officials were working Saturday to retrieve the plane’s flight recorder and get the jet to shore.