Most passengers had just finished meals of grilled salmon or breast of chicken. Some still had drinks, and others were heading to the restrooms.
Hiroaki Hanai was dozing off when the Honolulu-bound jumbo jet suddenly shook, then plunged like a broken elevator.
Hanai was thrown from his seat and slammed into the aisle. Screams and the sound of shattering glass filled the cabin of the United Airlines jumbo jet. His 70-year-old mother was hurled from her seat, her head striking the ceiling.
“It was as though the plane dipped in a free fall beneath us, leaving our bodies behind,” said Hanai, 38, one of many vacation-bound Japanese among the 393 people on the Honolulu-bound plane.
Still, his family emerged with only slight injuries.
One woman died and 105 other people were injured late Sunday when Flight 826 hit rough air, lurched, rattled and then plummeted 1,000 feet. The fall was over in a flash and the plane turned back to Narita airport, 40 miles northeast of Tokyo, early Monday.
Konomi Kataura, 32, of Tokyo, died of internal cerebral bleeding, police said.
Thirteen people remained hospitalized late Monday, but hospital officials would not give their conditions. Most of those injured suffered head or neck injuries.
Reports differed about whether the seat-belt lights were on or not.
About two hours after takeoff, the jet was at cruising altitude when it flew into severe turbulence over the Pacific Ocean, 1,100 miles east of Narita.
United said the plane encountered “severe clear-air turbulence” - unanticipated rockiness that develops when there are no storms visible.
Passengers said the seat-belt lights were not on. United spokeswoman Kristina Price, however, said the seat-belt light was turned on after the plane hit slight turbulence. Announcements were made in English and Japanese alerting passengers to buckle up, and then the shaking got worse, she said.
But the National Transportation Safety Board couldn’t be sure whether the sign was on until investigators talked with the crew, board spokesman Matthew Furman said.
The plane’s flight recorders were being sent to NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Turbulence is the leading cause of flight injuries, which average 58 a year in the United States, and has killed two other people since 1981, said U.S. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
When the plane finally settled down, passengers said the ceiling was sprayed with red wine and broken plates lay scattered in the aisles.
“Suddenly the plane dropped and people were jumping and falling, and things came flying at me - like juice cans, food,” said Chieko Ejiri, 28, who was heading on vacation with her boyfriend.
Ejiri escaped unscathed, but she saw a woman who had just left the restroom flung against a seat.
“When she got up, there was blood on her shirt,” said Ejiri, who spoke at a hotel where the airline took the passengers to wait for another flight.
Bottles of cologne in the restrooms were broken. Some overhead luggage compartments were cracked. The oxygen masks had popped out and were dangling.
Those seated toward the back were more seriously injured than those in the front.
“I thought I was dying,” said Kiyotaka Eto, a 16-year-old high school student from Osaka heading for a surfing vacation in Hawaii. “Once I decided I was going to die, I kept my eyes closed and sat there breaking out in a cold sweat.”
His seat belt saved him from injury.
The experience unleashed a flood of different emotions.
“I felt, ‘So this is what a plane crash feels like,”’ Yoko Hanai, Hiroaki’s mother, said.
As she waited with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren to board another flight Monday, Yoko Hanai acknowledged being a bit nervous.
Her husband, Shigeru, said they shouldn’t complain.
“When you think about the person who was killed, at least we are safe,” he said.
Graphic: Flying into turbulence