Thirty passengers treated at JFK after flight hits turbulence

[NEW YORK] For about nine hours, Sead Nikaj's flight back home to New York from Istanbul was smooth.

But as the plane was crossing over Maine on Saturday, it hit a patch of severe turbulence, he said. Mr Nikaj said he watched the woman next to him fly out of her seat. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. People banged their heads, screamed and prayed.

For about 10 to 15 minutes - but what felt like an eternity to Mr Nikaj - he thought he was going to die.

"I said, 'God help me,'" he said.

The Turkish Airlines plane landed safely at Kennedy Airport, but at least 30 people were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries because of the turbulence, authorities said.

One flight attendant broke her leg, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The rest of the injuries were minor, and included "bumps, bruises and cuts," Coleman said.

But the turbulence left the plane cabin full of bloodied and shaken passengers. Several ambulances rushed to the airport as the plane landed, in a chaotic scene that Mr Nikaj said he keeps replaying.

He said he would never fly again.

"I'm done with it, I'm definitely done with it, experiencing what I experienced today," he said.

In a statement, the airline said it was "deeply saddened by this unfortunate experience" and that it was closely monitoring the health status of the injured passengers.

The flight, number 001 and a Boeing 777 plane, encountered the turbulence about 45 minutes before it landed at 5.35pm, authorities said.

Mr Nikaj said he was returning from a trip to Albania, where his parents live. He said that when the plane went through a small patch of turbulence about 40 minutes before landing, passengers were directed to put on their seat belts.

Then a second, larger burst of turbulence seemed to come out of nowhere.

"It was crazy, really crazy," Mr Nikaj said. "All that time, people are screaming, people are praying. It was like something that I never experienced."

The pilot then announced everything was under control, and 10 minutes later, the plane landed, Mr Nikaj said.

"Until we parked it, I couldn't believe we were alive," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the pilot had declared an emergency and reported that several passengers were injured. Several ambulances arrived at the airport, and 30 people were taken to local hospitals, mostly to the Jamaica Hospital Medical Centre, Coleman said.

"It was crazy," said Sonali Saili, a wheelchair dispatcher who saw passengers being rolled across the terminal floor on stretchers to a line of emergency vehicles outside. "There were people with broken limbs and bandages."

Mr Nikaj said the people with the worst injuries were let off the plane first.

"There were a lot of wounded people," said Andrew Kotounis, a Terminal 1 skycap who saw people from the flight trickling out through the departures area, most on foot and some on stretchers. He said he heard waiting family members of the Turkish Airline passengers describing frantic phone calls from the plane.

Mr Nikaj said he drove home with his wife and children, who had met him at the airport, and then drove himself to a hospital. He thought he had injured his chest trying to help the woman next to him who had flown out of her seat.

Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to passengers and flight attendants, excluding fatal accidents, according to the FAA. In 2017, 17 passengers and members of the flight crew were injured in turbulence, according to the FAA. In 2016, that number was 44. Since 2002, the highest annual number has been 94, in 2009.


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