LA-Bound Flight Makes Emergency Landing After Airport Worker Falls Asleep in Cargo Hold

The pilot reported a banging sound coming from the cargo area before turning back to Seattle

An airport worker whose shift started early ended Monday with an untimely nap in an unfortunate location -- the cargo hold of a departing Alaska Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles.

The terrified baggage handler started pounding on the floor underneath their feet after waking up inside the storage area as the aircraft was taking off, according to passengers who heard the sounds coming from the belly of Flight 448. The banging for help could be heard by both the pilots and first-class passengers.

"It was just loud pounding," passenger Jamie Davis told NBC News. "You know, it sounded like there was something stuck in the wheel well of a car or something, is what the pounding sounded like. It was just him pounding to get the plane to stop."

After touching down at LAX, passenger Pablo Fauntleroy said he had never experienced anything like it despite being a frequent flyer.

"It was like… banging on the metal right there. He's like, 'help, help, help,'" Fauntleroy said, "We're like 'What? We're in the middle of takeoff.'"

The plane had just taken off Monday afternoon when the pounding noise from down below started, the airline said. Jamie Davis said their surprise guest had chosen the worst possible time to make his presence known.

"(The banging started) just about when the nose was lifting off the ground. We started hearing yelling for help," Davis said.

The captain immediately returned to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and declared an emergency for priority landing. The plane was airborne for 14 minutes.

A federal air marshal was on hand to keep the frightened man calm.

"The marshal kind of made himself known, and started banging back," said passenger Troi Ge. "He yelled really loud, 'We're getting ready to land, hold onto something,'"

After the plane landed, a ramp worker who started his shift at 5 a.m. came out of the front cargo hold, which Alaska said is pressurized and temperature controlled.

"He told authorities he had fallen asleep," the airline said.

The man, an employee of Alaska contractor Menzies Aviation, walked off the plane. He was initially checked by medics at the airport and found to be unhurt, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said.

The man was also checked at a hospital and released, the airline said Monday evening. After his release from the hospital, he passed a drug test, airline spokesman Bryan Zidar said.

Fauntleroy said everybody on board was completely stunned that they had to make their emergency in such bizarre circumstances.

"Everybody was just like quiet, just like kind of in awe. And he just kept banging," Fauntleroy said.

The airline did not identify the worker. A Menzies spokesman did not immediately return an email request for comment and details about the employee.

The man started work at 5 a.m. Monday and was due off at 2:30 p.m., the airline said in a statement. He had been part of a four-person team loading baggage onto the flight, which initially departed at 2:39 p.m.

Before the plane departed, the leader of the man's team noticed he was missing, called into the cargo hold for him, and called and texted the man's cellphone but got no answer, the airline said. Co-workers decided he had finished his shift and gone home.

All ramp employees undergo full criminal background checks and drug checks before hiring and are subject to random drug tests during their employment, the airline statement said.

The plane carried 170 passengers and six crew members. The flight departed again at 3:52 p.m. and arrived at a terminal gate in Los Angeles at 6:29 p.m., more than an hour late, the airline said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating, spokesman Allen Kenitzer confirmed in an email.

NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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