There was an almighty thud, the aircraft rattled, the forward cargo door swung wide, the fuselage peeled back and nine passengers were sucked into oblivion. Rotorua's Suellyn Caudwell was on that plane and in 2015 spoke publicly for the first time about her brush with death and its aftermath.
ON February 24, 1989, Suellyn Caudwell buckled herself into United Airlines flight 811.
The plane was still climbing out of Hawaii when there was an almighty thud, the aircraft rattled, the forward cargo door swung wide, the fuselage peeled back, nine passengers were sucked into oblivion.
For 26 years the Rotorua physiotherapist has refused to talk publicly about coming so close to death. Our People is privileged that she has chosen this column to break her silence and acknowledges the emotional memories it's reignited for her.
Suellyn's is a story only she can tell. This is her first person account of the night she stared into death's jaws:
"I WAS returning from a skiing holiday in Canada, in Los Angeles. I went out to dinner with friends and had to scoot at top speed to catch the flight. There was a refuelling stop in Hawaii, shortly after we were airborne there was this enormous bang, the plane whacked down and down, I could see the moon reflected in the water, I realised I was looking at through a gaping hole in the plane's side."
"The cabin filled with something white, opaque, it looked like cotton wool but it must have been insulation. I was thinking: 'This movie feels real, oh my God, it IS real, we are falling out of the sky.'
"When the pilot said, 'we're trying to get back to Hawaii', you knew it wasn't certain we'd make it. "We were coming down and down and down, the cabin was decompressing and there was this ghastly noise. I still can't bear that noise and don't use 'huffers' [extractor fans]. It was that sort of noise. "Some of the seats by the emergency exit disappeared in the snap of a finger. Some people were on the floor, some went into the engines, two engines perhaps. Although I was behind them I didn't see them vanish, it was so quick."
"I had this feeling warm, black silk was over my face and head, it was quite lovely. I could see my children. I felt acceptance that we were going to die, I didn't panic, what was the use?"
"When we began to see the lights of Honolulu I knew it would be all right, by then we were in a controlled descent. The cabin crew came into their own and said they were going to put chutes down. The aisles were full of people pushing and shoving, I stayed sitting down and then thought, 'this is ridiculous', got up and jostled into the queue to slide down the chute. It took some skin off my elbows, that was the sum total of my injuries."
"I stood up and ran as fast as anyone could run and when I looked back I couldn't believe the size of the hole in the plane-you could have driven three cars through it."
"A bus took us to the airport, they gave us cigarettes and lemonade. They are wonderful things, cigarettes, but they could keep their lemonade, I was desperate for a cup of tea. People were allowing themselves to be interviewed, I thought: 'It's nobody's business.'
"We were taken to a hotel ballroom. I crawled under the grand piano, wanting some respite from people talking. I was thinking: 'Shut up, go away, I want to go to sleep.'
"We were filthy-I wanted a bath. An Australian couple booked a room, they had a spare bed, said I was welcome to it. I don't know if I slept but after a while we went downstairs and proceeded to get absolutely stinking drunk (the alcohol was free)."
"There were queues of people making phone calls. Some were talking for 20 to 30 minutes and it was very frustrating. When my turn came I phoned my daughter Sarah but it was the middle of the night in Rotorua. She didn't answer so I called my parents in Napier and said: 'I'm all right, you'll hear about it on the news.'
"The next day I knew I had to get on another plane. How else would I get home? I was still pretty drunk and didn't care if I would be drunk when we landed in New Zealand, it was the only way to go. "The cabin crew kept bringing half-sized bottles of Drambuie and when I spilt one they gave me two to replace it."
"We landed about 3am or 4am and I thought I'd get the bus to Rotorua but Sarah was there with a family friend who stood in front of the cameras to protect me. I appreciated that very much. "We went back to his house for a while and then I started to drive home but went two blocks and realised there was no way I could drive, my hands were shaking, I couldn't even see the road."
"Sarah drove and the next day we went to Tihoi where my son Richard was at a school camp. Sitting with them there I realised how valuable children are to us, that my experience had been a test. "I went back to work two days later because my locum couldn't stay on and it was a godsend because work is ordered, orderly, it makes sense, it was where the world was right."
"However about a month later I saw a psychologist because I realised it [the near-death experience] did upset me, that I needed help. "My amazing running friend, Shirley Watson, suggested we keep on running. We ran another marathon and it was the best thing -you appreciate how good your life is. My father was in the air force and he said: 'You must get
back on the horse.'
"That November my parents took my sister and me to the Melbourne Cup. I was sick on the plane . . . terrified, frozen."
"The day Sarah flew to America as an AFS [exchange] student was the most dreadful of my life. "I made a terrible fuss but I'm fine now. "Flying doesn't faze me and I've travelled a lot [since Flight 811]. "I sometimes think: 'Why was I so lucky?' My life's a bowl of cherries -sometimes you have to spray the tree so you can harvest