Dozens injured aboard Air Canada flight after plane hits turbulence

MONTREAL — About three dozen passengers and crew were injured Thursday when an Air Canada flight travelling from Toronto to Sydney, Australia, hit severe turbulence and was forced to divert to Honolulu.

Flight AC33 was about two hours past Hawaii over the Pacific Ocean early Thursday morning when "unforecasted and sudden turbulence" caused "minor injuries" for about 35 travellers and triggered a turnaround, Air Canada said in an email — though local emergency services highlighted nine "serious" injuries and 30 hospitalizations.

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Eyewitnesses described a gut-churning drop in altitude that slammed passengers and flight attendants into the ceiling.

Linda Woodhouse, an Albertan who is moving to Australia, said people had just begun to wake up and move around when the airplane experienced several seconds of minor turbulence. A few moments later, "the plane just dropped," she said.

"The lady in front of me flew up to the ceiling, so I was trying to grab her and make sure she wasn't injured.

"Some people were either getting up to get up to the washroom, or the first little bit of turbulence might have knocked their seatbelts off, and flight attendants were getting up to serve us," she said in a phone interview from Honolulu airport.

"Those individuals unfortunately flew up and hit the ceiling of the plane and dropped back down again."

Woodhouse credits the crew and passengers with springing into action in the wake of the drop. Four passengers with medical training walked up and down the aisles, helping the injured and reporting their issues to the pilots and crew, who eventually decided to turn the plane back to Hawaii.

"There were some facial lacerations, so they put sterile strips on them," she said. "There were a couple of people with head and neck injuries from flying up and hitting the ceiling."

Woodhouse said Air Canada has told passengers they will spend the night in a hotel and will likely continue their journeys tomorrow. Despite the shock, she said she has no qualms about getting on the plane.

"It could have been a lot worse," she said.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777-200 jetliner, had 269 passengers and 15 crew members on board, who were greeted by medical personnel on arrival at Honolulu airport at 6:45 a.m. local time.

Thirty people were transported to hospital, with nine in "serious" condition, said Honolulu Emergency Services Department spokeswoman Shayne Enright.

Paramedics assessed seven others who declined treatment, she said.

"A lot of lacerations, bumps and bruises, neck and back pain," Enright said in a phone interview. "No open fractures — nothing visible."

The airline said it is arranging hotel accommodations and meals for passengers in Honolulu as well as options for resumption of the flight.

"Our first priority is always the safety of our flights, passengers and crew," Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said.

The turbulence happened at about 10,970 metres 966 kilometres southwest of Honolulu, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a tweet.

-with files from Morgan Lowrie and The Associated Press Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly credited passenger comments to CBC.

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