Smoke Sparks Southwest Plane Evacuation


Plane near a flock of birds | Image by Michael O'Keene

Passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight departing from Havana, Cuba, were forced to evacuate the plane on Sunday after a bird strike caused smoke to fill the cabin shortly after takeoff.

Having departed from José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba, on March 5, flight 3923 was bound for Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There were six crew members and 147 passengers on board, per NBC 6 Miami.

As Southwest Airlines later officially confirmed, bird strikes hit one of the plane’s engines and its nose.

According to witnesses, many passengers panicked.

Despite the deployment of oxygen masks being against airline procedures during a fire, some passengers took matters into their own hands and punched the roof to eject the oxygen masks, leaving them with bloodied knuckles.

Some passengers sent hurried messages to loved ones, telling them goodbye.

“To be honest, I thought it was my time to go,” Steven Rodriguez told NBC 6. “I was terrified.”

While the exact details of the bird strikes were not released, passenger video circulating on social media shows thick smoke inside the aircraft, with emergency oxygen masks dangling above some seats.

The pilots of flight 3923 were quick to respond to the emergency, safely returning to Havana.

Passengers clapped and cheered as the plane landed.

“[The captain] was incredible,” Jorge Montesino told NBC 6. “With only one engine, the left engine, she was able to turn the plane around and land safely.”

The passengers evacuated the plane via emergency inflatable slides on the runway and were bussed to a terminal before being accommodated on alternative flights to Fort Lauderdale.

According to Rodriguez, the initial impact of the bird strike sounded “like a big boom. Like an explosion.” No passengers or crew reported serious injuries during the incident, although passengers told NBC 6 that one woman had suffered a head injury.

Southwest Airlines has apologized to customers for the inconvenience and offered additional support while commending their pilots’ and flight attendants’ swift and professional actions in responding to the event.

An investigation into the incident is underway, but bird strikes are actually quite common, per NBC 6. The Federal Aviation Administration has logged more than 250,000 wildlife strikes — mostly birds, but also deer — since 1990.

As with Southwest flight 3923, nearly all of these strikes happen during either takeoff or landing. They are also very difficult to predict.

Many airports implement strategies to deter birds in order to reduce the risk of bird strikes, including netting and good old-fashioned scarecrows.

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