LIMOGES, France (AFP) — Passengers on a Ryanair flight said Tuesday they thought they were going to die when the low-cost jet plunged 8,000 metres (26,400 feet) after a sudden loss of cabin pressure over France.
"I sent my mum a text: 'I love you and I am going down'," Charlotte Thorthon, a 22-year-old British medical student, told AFP. "I called her half an hour later and she couldn't believe I was OK."
Sixteen people were taken to hospital for ear problems after fight FR9336 made an emergency landing at Limoges airport in central France, Ryanair said.
The Boeing 737 was carrying 168 passengers and seven crew from Bristol to Barcelona in Spain when it suffered what police described as a "brutal decompression" just before midnight on Monday.
A Ryanair spokeswoman said the plane "experienced an in-flight depressurisation incident which caused the oxygen masks on board to deploy.
"As a safety precaution the captain descended and diverted the aircraft to Limoges airport," she said.
But passengers said some of the oxygen masks did not work.
British Arctic explorer Pen Hadow, who was on board the flight, said: "Mine wasn't filling up with oxygen and neither was my son's. He was hyperventilating. I looked at the lady on my left and hers hadn't filled up either."
"I would say some people thought we were going to die," said Hadow, who was on the flight with his wife, Mary, son Wilf, 9, who was one of the 16 people taken to hospital, and daughter Freya, 6.
Hadow described hearing a "loud and unnerving sound" as the cabin pressure dropped, while Thorthon, the student, said she heard a sudden "whooshing sound".
Both complained that no announcement was made to tell passengers what was going on.
"For about half an hour no one told us anything, we didn't know what was happening at all, we were quite panicky," said Thorthon. "After half an hour we were told to take the oxygen mask off, and then the plane landed and we were fine."
Officials in Limoges said the jet came down 8,000 metres in five minutes but that an initial inspection of the plane had not revealed any causes for the depressurisation.
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary insisted that "the oxygen masks were working, the correct safety procedures were followed".
Defending the crew's actions, he said it was not possible for them to make an announcement about the situation because safety regulations meant the pilots and cabin crew had to don oxygen masks themselves.
"They can't be making passenger announcements when they have their oxygen masks on.
"As the passengers confirmed, the pilot did make an announcement once he got down to 8,000 feet, where it is safe to take the oxygen masks off, that they were diverting to Limoges," said O'Leary.
Around 100 of the passengers arrived at Barcleona-Girona airport on a replacement plane early Tuesday. Those who had to go to hospital were being taken from Limoges by coach.
Last Saturday a plane carrying 130 passengers had to divert to a nearby French airport after the crew of the Boeing 737 owned by no-frills airline easyJet reported smoke in the cockpit.
The plane, en route from London to Cagliari in Sardinia, landed at Nice in southeastern France where a stewardess was taken to hospital for tests after suffering breathing problems.
Last Wednesday 154 people died in Spain's worst aviation accident in 25 years when a jet crashed off the runway at a Madrid airport moments after takeoff.
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