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Federal investigators: United Airlines engine shows signs of metal fatigue

Residents in not only Broomfield but also the Netherlands dodged falling engine parts from Boeing planes Saturday, bringing international scrutiny to the type of engine involved in the incidents.

The United Airlines plane that caught fire and dropped debris on Broomfield showed signs of metal fatigue inside its engine, federal investigators said Monday after a preliminary, on-scene examination of the right engine’s fan blades.

Investigators want to determine at what point the metal fatigue started and whether it caused a fan blade inside the engine to break off at the root, hit another blade and tear the engine apart, forcing the Hawaii-bound United Flight 328 to turn around minutes after takeoff for an emergency landing in Denver.

The incident is similar to another engine failure that happened in the Netherlands on Saturday, both drawing international attention and prompting plans for new safety measures. Meanwhile, Broomfield police said they were overwhelmed by calls about plane debris this weekend, and residents whose property was damaged are hoping United Airlines will pay for repairs.

The engine failure that happened in flight over Denver put a gash in the fuselage of the plane, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a Monday evening news conference. He could not say how close the puncture under the right wing might have come to depressurizing the cabin, but said there was no structural threat to the plane.

“It’s basically fiberglass,” he said. “… it can be fairly easily punctured. You couldn’t go up and sock it with your fist, but a piece of metal flying at a high speed could puncture it. It is not structural in nature.”

Residents in not only Broomfield but also the Netherlands dodged falling engine parts from Boeing planes Saturday. Two Dutch people were injured when a Boeing 747 cargo plane also experienced an engine failure after takeoff Saturday and dropped debris on a residential area and vehicles in Meerssen, according to the Dutch Safety Board.

The engines on that Boeing 747 are a smaller version of the Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engine on the Boeing 777-200 that caught fire over Broomfield, according to Reuters.

United Airlines grounded its other Boeing 777 planes with the same engine, and the Federal Aviation Administration ordered increased safety inspections for that model of engine, which has a unique hollow fan blade and is used only on Boeing 777 planes. In Japan, the Civil Aviation Bureau suspended all operations of Boeing 777s with the same engines.

As the broader aviation world grappled with Saturday’s incident, some Broomfield residents’ problems were — literally — more down to earth. Kirby Klements, for example, needs a new truck.

His 2006 Dodge Ram truck was smashed by a huge, ring-shaped piece of plane that fell on his front lawn, narrowly missing his house on Elmwood Street. He’s been on the phone nonstop since Saturday and has been dealing with a steady stream of gawkers.

He said Monday he’s hoping United Airlines will foot the bill for a new truck.

“I can’t have them drop something on my truck and destroy it and give me $10,000 or $15,000 and walk away,” he said. “I’ve got no means of replacing my vehicle. I can’t go take out a $60,000 loan to buy an automobile with a $700-a-month payment.”

A representative from United Airlines touched base and told him the airline is self-insured, he said. A spokeswoman for the airline declined to say Monday whether it will pay for damages caused by the plane’s debris.

This image taken Feb. 22, 2021, shows the damage to the wing and the body fairing of the United Airlines flight 328 Boeing 777-200, following an engine failure incident Saturday.
This image taken Feb. 22, 2021, shows the damage to the wing and the body fairing of the United Airlines flight 328 Boeing 777-200, following an engine failure incident Saturday. The NTSB is investigating the incident.

Klements said his own insurance will be a last resort, and that company has said they’ll work with him.

Most home and vehicle insurance policies cover unexpected events on property — even airplane parts falling from the sky, insurance expert Doug Emerick said, though each policy has its own unique exclusions.

“The only thing it doesn’t cover are ‘acts of God,’ and that was not an act of God,” he said. “If there is damage to the home, it would be covered. If there is damage to the property itself, like a piece falls in the front or back yard, that may not be covered, because the land itself is not covered.”

Jim Taylor, chief claims compliance offer for Farmers Insurance, which markets itself as covering odd occurrences, said in a statement Monday that the company typically covers damage due to “objects falling out of the sky” as part of its standard home insurance policy.

At least two homes were damaged from the debris, Broomfield police have said.

The department received hundreds of calls over the weekend from people who found plane debris, to the point that it strained police manpower, spokeswoman Rachel Welte said.

“We were just getting overwhelmed by the amount of calls,” she said.

The police department initially asked residents to call if they found any plane parts, but now ask only to call if the debris is at least as big as a computer monitor or has an identifying feature, like a serial or part number or text that reads “United,” Welte said.

“I’m assuming people are going to continue to find things, as they go out into their yards and work this spring,” Welte said.

The police department collected several dozen smaller plane pieces that will be turned over to federal investigators. Many of the larger plane parts were picked up Saturday night by investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board as they mounted a hurried effort before a winter storm moved in.

Police are assuming the small parts that have been turned in to them are legitimate pieces of the plane, Welte said.

“We’re not plane experts, we’re just trying our best,” she said.

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