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Alberta ‘We felt we were dying’: Turbulence diverts flight to Calgary with injured passengers

A passenger aboard an Air Canada flight is wheeled out of Calgary's airport after turbulence injured a number of passengers.

Courtesy of CBC

It was clear sailing for Air Canada flight AC088 to Toronto from Shanghai, until turbulence began over Alaska. Within moments, shaking became violent and Connie Gelber watched some of her fellow passengers get tossed about the cabin of the Boeing 777.

In the next few minutes, nearly two dozen people, including three children, were hurt badly enough to be sent to hospital in Calgary, where the plane was diverted.

"It was nobody's fault. Not the pilot's. Everybody did the best they could," Ms. Gelber said at the Calgary airport. "But honestly we felt we were dying. Like you see in the movies, where they all go up to the ceiling – everything went up to the ceiling that wasn't anchored."

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"The girl beside me was thrown clear out of her seat, down the aisle. It was the worst I've ever been on," Ms. Gelber said before rushing to catch a connection to get to her eventual destination in Montreal.

At the tail end of the flight from Shanghai, the pilot came on the intercom and warned they were entering an area of turbulence.

But no one was prepared for the jolt that sent the Boeing 777 into sudden descent.

After the unusually severe turbulence, the plane, carrying 332 passengers and 19 crew members, landed safely in Calgary at 3:22 MT, Air Canada said. Officials did not give a cause for the turbulence, a normal occurrence on flights in mild form, but in rare instances it can be intense and dangerous, especially for passengers not belted into their seats.

Calgary paramedics boarded the aircraft and assessed 25 passengers. Of those, 21 were rushed to area hospitals by ambulance, including seven who received potentially serious neck and back injuries, said Stuart Brideaux, spokesman for Calgary EMS.

This is not the first time severe turbulence has forced an Air Canada flight to be diverted to Calgary. In 2008, one of the airline's Airbus 319 jets bound for Toronto from Victoria plunged and shook at 35,000 feet, putting 10 people in hospital.

Passengers described how the flight went from calm to violent shaking that lasted a few minutes in all.

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Esther Du said it was a frightening experience.

"The first time was just a little shake, and then suddenly we go up quickly and we just fall down," she said. "Luckily, I had my seat belt fastened but the boy beside me didn't."

She said he flew up and hit the bulkhead above him.

She admitted to wondering, "are we going to be OK? Are we going to be alive?" and said even though she wasn't hurt, she was nervous about getting onto the next flight that would take her to her destination.

Passenger Sharon Zong also said she had jitters about getting back on a plane, joking that she had to veto her husband's suggestion they drive back to Toronto.

Joe Mulholland, who was travelling home with his wife, Pamela Wise, to Boston after visiting their daughter in Shanghai, said the plane was above Alaska when he felt "normal turbulence."

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"Then heavier turbulence began, then whoa – big dip, big rise," said Mr. Mulholland. "It happened two, maybe three times. In between, there was a lot of shaking. It lasted a total of a couple minutes altogether. Some people who weren't belted in went banging around. ‎And yeah, it was pretty scary."

The oxygen masks were released from the overhead compartments, said Ms. Wise.

"Two of the people around me came out of their chair because they didn't have their seat belts on," she said. "It seemed one smashed the top of her head because something happened to her jaw. She was bleeding for the entire time. She was probably one of the major ones you saw them take out."

Ms. Wise said a doctor was on board, providing much-needed medical attention and she praised the crew for their calm response. Her husband said passengers were relatively calm once the shaking stopped.

Transportation Safety Board investigators will gather the plane's data and voice recorders – the so-called black boxes – immediately. The organization expects to interview the flight and cabin crew Thursday, said Jon Lee, the western regional manager for the TSB. Investigators may later conduct interviews with passengers and the agency will also examine data on weather conditions. The TSB does not assign blame as part of its probe. Instead, it identifies what and why incidents happen.

After the diversion of the flight, Air Canada made arrangements for the passengers to continue on to Toronto.

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"Air Canada teams are meeting with passengers. At this time, the airline can confirm that passengers and crew have been examined by medical personnel after turbulence encountered en route and 21 passengers have been transferred directly to local hospitals," the airline said in a statement.

With reports from Carrie Tait, James Keller and The Canadian Press

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