Some passengers were snoozing while others snacked when the first turbulence rattled Continental Flight 128 over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the jetliner began to plunge and shake violently, hurling passengers over seatbacks and slamming them against luggage bins.
The Boeing 767 made an emergency landing in Miami early Monday so at least 26 injured, four seriously, could receive medical help. But the sudden turbulence that rocked the overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro was an all-too-real reminder of an Air France flight - also traveling from Rio - that crashed into the mid-Atlantic in June during thunderstorms, killing all 228 people on board.
"I immediately thought of the Air France flight, that we're going to fall. We're going to fall," said Herman Oppenheimer of Rio, one of 179 people on the flight.
Said 20-year-old passenger Camila Machado, who was going to Las Vegas and was treated for a bruised cheek: "I felt like the airplane was going to crash. I felt like we were going to die. Like, the first thing I thought about was Air France."
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen cautioned against drawing any parallels between the two flights and said the cause and severity of the turbulence in the Continental case was still being investigated.
"I wouldn't draw any conclusions," Bergen said.
Meteorologists differed on weather conditions at the time the Houston-bound plane encountered the turbulence just northwest of Puerto Rico.
Henri Agramonte, an assistant forecaster at the Dominican Republic national office of meteorology, said there were thunderstorms early Monday, which were caused by a tropical wave that could have generated strong winds off the country's northern coast. But Brian Wimer, a meteorologist from the State College, Pa.-based Accuweather, said there were no thunderstorms in the area.
Wimer speculated that the plane may have encountered clear air turbulence, which occur at high altitudes in tranquil and cloudless conditions.
"There's really no easy way to detect that," Wimer said. "It can cause problems if it's severe enough. Normally, if the pilots are aware of it, people sit down and belt in."
Bergen said it's premature to say whether clear air turbulence was the cause of the Flight 128 problem. She said the FAA, NASA, and private companies are working to develop turbulence warning technology that could be used in flight.
Aviation officials say air turbulence is rarely more than a nuisance. Still, turbulence was responsible for 22 percent of all U.S. airline accidents and 49 percent of serious-injury accidents between 1996 and 2005, the National Transportation Safety Board reported in an annual safety review in March.
Unexpected turbulence is why pilots often tell passengers to keep their buckles fastened even if they have turned off the "seat belt" sign and the skies are clear.
"It was just so sudden you didn't really have time to react," said passenger Carolina Portella, 18, describing what happened on Flight 128.
"I grabbed the hand of the person next to me, and just held on," she said. "I mean it was really frightening."
Flight attendants in the aisle were thrown against the ceiling. Passengers who weren't belted in went flying into the overhead compartments; one woman hit a luggage bin so hard that her head stuck there. Oxygen masks dropped. A child smacked his chest on a tray table and started bleeding.
"One lady, she just came out of her seat and flew over the middle row, hit her head on the wall and landed on her back," said 13-year-old passenger Diego Saavedra, whose nose was bandaged as he spoke with reporters in the terminal of Miami International Airport.
"All of a sudden there were people coming up off their seats, people screaming, little kids crying, people saying please, ow, help please," Saavedra said.
Photos taken by a passenger showed overhead lighting compartments that had been cracked by the impact of passengers' heads; another photo showed the guts of an entire panel hanging down, the oxygen tanks inside exposed.
Aloiso Dias said he grabbed the seat in front of him and held on.
"I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I couldn't even see what was going on with my wife," Dias said.
Passengers said the terror lasted only a few seconds and the cabin quieted down fast when it was over. A doctor sitting in first class made the rounds through the aircraft and helped the injured, while the decision was made to land the plane in Miami so the injured passengers could be treated.
The plane landed in Miami at 5:30 a.m. Fourteen people were taken to Miami-area hospitals and were treated for their injuries; four were in serious condition. Other passengers were sent to Houston or reticketed on other Continental flights. Some had to stand in long lines for their new tickets, and during their wait, spoke with the media about their ordeal.
Machado was treated at the hospital for the injury to her cheek, while her mother, Glauria Machado, was seen for a gash in her head. Camila Machado cautioned anyone flying to wear their seatbelts - even when it is calm.
"Fasten your seatbelt. That's why we're here, to tell everybody," she said. "Always fasten your seatbelt, because that's what saved a lot of people. Everybody who had their seatbelt on wasn't injured."