updated 12/27/2005 11:48:47 PM ET 2005-12-28T04:48:47

A 12-inch hole in the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines jet caused the plane to lose cabin pressure, forcing the pilots to make an emergency descent and return to the airport, authorities said Tuesday.

The incident Monday involved an MD-80 jet en route from Seattle to Burbank, Calif. The plane landed safely at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and none of the 140 passengers was hurt.

A ramp worker acknowledged that he failed to report immediately striking the plane at the gate Monday with a baggage cart or baggage-belt machine, said Jim Struhsaker, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The worker told the agency that although the vehicle touched the plane, he was not aware he had dented it, Struhsaker said.

The accident created a crease in the plane’s aluminum skin, which opened up into a 12-by-6-inch gash as the jet came climbed to 26,000 feet, Struhsaker said.

The crew of Flight 536 reported a loss of cabin pressure about 20 minutes after takeoff, airline spokeswoman Caroline Boren said.

Oxygen masks deployed for passengers, and the plane made a rapid descent back toward the airport.

“I could feel that obviously my ears popping ... and then it got hard to breathe, and then, whoosh, all the compression in the plane was lost,” passenger Jeremy Hermanns said.

The worker who damaged the jet was employed by Menzies Aviation, a British company under contract with the airline to provide baggage handling and other ramp services, Boren said.

Menzies did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday night.

Meetings were being held with ramp workers to review safety procedures, including the “rapid and thorough reporting” of incidents on the ground, Boren said.

The plane was being repaired and should be back in service within a few days, she added.

Last May, the airline laid off nearly 500 baggage handlers and other ramp workers at the airport, saying it needed to trim costs amid rising fuel prices and fierce competition from low-cost carriers.

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