Fallout of United Airlines Jetliner's Engine Failure Over Metro Denver Continues with Legal Cases, Searing Memories

Feb. 21, 2022

Feb. 20—Kirby Klements' son was shoveling snow from the sidewalk in front of his Broomfield house this winter when he came across a small piece of light, honeycomb-like material. Klements recognized it immediately.

The piece came from the interior paneling of an engine on a Boeing 777 wide-body airliner that exploded one year ago Sunday over the northwest suburbs, shortly after the Hawaii-bound United Airlines flight took off from Denver International Airport.

"We still find bits and pieces of that lying everywhere," said Klements, 68, whose home of nearly four decades served as one of the highest-profile landing spots for falling debris — namely, a roughly 10-foot-diameter engine ring that grazed his house and smashed the cab on his heavy-duty Dodge Ram 2500 pickup, parked in the driveway. Engine parts clobbered other structures nearby and rained down on a park where youth soccer teams were practicing.

Nobody was hurt onboard the plane or on the ground, but passengers and residents alike, including Klements and his wife, Maryann, have dealt with emotional scars from the Feb. 20, 2021, event. United still faces legal claims and lawsuits by passengers, though it reached private settlements in recent months with 14 plaintiffs to end the highest-profile case, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver.

The airline also has dealt with insurance claims by Klements and others on the ground who sustained property damage.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue a final report on the cause of the engine failure for Flight 328, which carried 239 passengers and crew. But based on the NTSB's preliminary findings last March, which pointed to fractured fan blades, the Federal Aviation Administration in late December laid out proposed directives for intensive inspections and retrofits. Those gave United, the only U.S.-based carrier with affected planes, a path to returning 52 grounded 777s to the air soon.

Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman during the 1990s who is now a consultant based in Chattanooga, Tenn., characterized the incident as "a very serious event." It rightfully prompted major responses by United and other carriers outside the United States, he said.

But he questioned why two similar engine failures on Boeing 777s, starting with a 2018 Hawaii-bound plane flown by United, didn't prevent last year's incident from happening.

"It was a miracle that no one was killed or injured in the event," Hall said.

The FAA warned in December of the risks of not addressing the vulnerabilities at play. It said the next fan-blade failure "could lead to engine in-flight shutdown, impact damage to the (tail assembly), fuselage, or window, with significantly increased aerodynamic drag causing fuel exhaustion or the inability to maintain altitude ... which could result in loss of control of the airplane, a forced off-airport landing, and injury to passengers."

Besides the 2018 United flight, a Japan Airlines flight in December 2020 — about two months before the Denver-area incident — experienced a similar failure. All three planes were older 777s with similar Pratt & Whitney engines. In the two earlier cases, cracked fan blades broke off and caused major damage to the engines.

That appeared to have happened again over Denver. The NTSB's preliminary report indicated that one "fatigued" blade broke off and another fractured "consistent with an overload failure." But an official conclusion about the cause is still pending.

United has said it got to work on inspections and some engine fixes last year in anticipation of the FAA's December directives, giving it a head start. It had grounded 24 777s that were in service at the time of the engine failure, with the remaining 28 in storage amid pandemic-reduced schedules.

The planes are part of United's plans to restore more long-haul service this year.

"United has been working closely with Boeing, the FAA and Pratt & Whitney to return those 777 aircraft to service and we expect that to happen sometime in the first quarter," said Russell Carlton, a United spokesman in Denver.

At least two dozen passengers have sued United

Though the planes were designed to stay airborne for hours with one of the two engines out, it makes for rough flying. Flight 328's pilots issued a "mayday" call, and silence took hold for much of the 20-minute return to DIA as several passengers said they worried it might crash.

Some took video out their windows of the right engine engulfed in flames, its cover completely gone.

"I can honestly say I thought we were going to die at one point — because we started dropping altitude right after the explosion," passenger David Delucia, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told The Denver Post after the landing. "I grabbed my wife's hand and said, 'We're done.' "

The Delucias were among 14 passengers who joined the federal lawsuit against United in Denver. It was filed by California attorney Jonathan Corbett and charged United with negligent infliction of emotional distress, based on claims the airline failed to properly inspect and maintain its aircraft.

The last remaining plaintiff, Chad Schnell, has settled with United, and the case was dismissed Jan. 24, according to court records. The terms of the settlements, including any compensation, were not disclosed.

"None of my clients are able to offer their own comment," Corbett wrote in response to The Post's questions, "and I cannot confirm or deny if this is due to an agreement with United." It's typical, though, for legal settlements to prohibit the parties from commenting on a resolved case.

Chicago attorney Richard F. Burke is representing passengers in about a dozen still-pending cases filed against United in Cook County, where the airline is headquartered. He is a partner at the Clifford Law Offices, which has handled other airline industry cases, including litigation resulting from the crash of a new Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Ethiopia in 2019.

Burke said this weekend's anniversary was a milestone some of his clients were bracing for, since it rekindled unpleasant memories.

"These passengers, many different types of things can trigger flashbacks for them," he said. "It can be a sight, it can be a sound, a fire, an alarm, a siren. Things like that can cause people to have some flashbacks, and that's what becomes problematic for them. There are things they can't anticipate and don't always know when they'll occur."

It's unclear if more cases are out there. Asked about remaining lawsuits, Carlton, the United spokesman, said in an email: "We do not have anything to share regarding litigation."

"We were sitting maybe 10 feet away"

On the ground, Klements spent most of last year wrangling with United's insurance carrier to cover damage. He said his neighbor's roof, which was pierced by debris, sported a blue tarp for about six months.

Klements said he hired an attorney after nearly two months of discussions with United's insurer resulted in low-ball offers that wouldn't cover the roof and gutter repairs and the replacement of his totaled 15-year-old truck. Just before the incident, he'd invested $7,000 in engine work for the truck, which the couple had used to tow a camper for summer excursions.

He said he received a final property settlement in November but hadn't bought a new truck yet because of skyrocketing prices for both used and new vehicles.

Still unresolved, Klements said, is a medical damages claim related to counseling and other mental health services in the last year. When he and his wife first heard the engine explosion overhead, he said, they were relaxing on the living room couch on the Saturday afternoon.

They're still rattled by that and what happened about 30 seconds later, when the engine ring landed outside.

"It came just straight down," he said, "and caught the edge of the house and the truck — just instantaneously. And were were sitting, just like I said, maybe 10 feet away."

As he stepped outside, he recalled, "My immediate thought was: Where is the rest of the airplane? You don't expect a piece that large to fall off an airplane and have the plane still in the air."

As airlines look to return 777s with similar Pratt & Whitney engines to the skies, the FAA's airworthiness directives include conducting thermal imaging inspections of compressor blades, replacing blades suffering metal fatigue or other damage, and installing debris shields inside engines.

About 150 older 777s were affected, with most operated by airlines based outside the United States.

Hall, the former NTSB chairman, said that given the prior engine failures, he saw the Denver incident as one of the latest symptoms of the deterioration of FAA oversight over the last decade or so. Congressional investigators also concluded in recent years that lapses in the FAA's safety oversight during Boeing's development of the 737 MAX aircraft contributed to the conditions that resulted in fatal plane crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and the one in Ethiopia in 2019.

Hall in part faults members of Congress who pushed the FAA to be more friendly to the industry.

"I think the FAA lost its way, and the primary mission of the FAA is safety," he said, adding that the new engine directives won't resolve the underlying problem.

"Essentially, the system itself became flawed over the last decade," Hall said, "and it needs correction as much as that engine needed correction."


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