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updated 10/28/2010 9:39:12 PM ET 2010-10-29T01:39:12

A 1-foot-by-2-foot (30-centimeter-by-60-centimeter) hole tore open in the fuselage of a commercial airliner that suddenly lost cabin pressure shortly after taking off from Miami, authorities said.

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A man aboard American Airlines Flight 1640 said passengers panicked Tuesday night when the Boston-bound flight lost cabin pressure and the oxygen masks came down.

"It was pretty chaotic and confusing. It just was kind of surreal. We kind of looked at each other when the masks came from the ceiling and thought this is it," said Edward Croce, 34, of Braintree, Massachusetts.

Croce tried to send a goodbye text message to his son back home, but his hands were shaking uncontrollably.

The crew declared an emergency, and the pilot returned the plane safely to Miami. The Boeing 757 carried 154 passengers and six crew members.

"We were shaken up and everyone was in shock," Croce said. He said the airline didn't provide medical attention for passengers once they were on the ground.

Video: FAA: Plane had hole in fuselage (on this page)

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Friday that an inspection of the plane revealed a hole in the upper part of the fuselage near a cabin door toward the front of the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency doesn't yet know what caused the hole.

"We'll be looking at (metal) fatigue and mechanical issues and everything," he said.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said the airline has assigned a team of engineers and maintenance technicians to look at the aircraft. He said American has talked to Boeing, the NTSB and the FAA. The airline took the plane out of service.

A similar incident happened last year aboard a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet that was forced to make an emergency landing after a crack between two sheets of aluminum skin turned into a gaping hole in the roof. That incident led Boeing and the FAA to direct airlines to increase inspections of parts of the 737.

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The Southwest jet was 15 years old and had made more than 42,500 takeoffs and landings. American refused to give the age of the Miami-to-Boston plane, but its fleet of 757s averages 16 years, which Smith said "is considered mid-life by most in the industry."

Age becomes a concern because of the risk of metal fatigue — cracks that develop from the constant cycle of pressurizing planes for flight, then releasing the pressure. It's like inflating a balloon, then letting the air out, and repeating the process thousands of times.

In 1988, cracks caused part of the roof of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 to peel open in flight. A flight attendant plunged to her death.

John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and an expert on aircraft maintenance, said rips in the upper fuselage can be caused by metal fatigue, by damage during repairs, from bumping into something like a jetway or by corrosion due to exposure to moisture.

Boeing produced about 900 copies of the original version of the 757, called the 757-200 series, including the American jet involved in Tuesday's incident. The first one was delivered to Eastern Airlines in 1982, and the last went to Shanghai Airlines in 2005, according to Boeing's website. Boeing began making a larger version of the 757 in the late 1990s.

Goglia said the 757 is "a rock solid airplane" that has proven to be reliable.

AP writer Suzette Laboy in Miami and AP Transportation Writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: FAA: Plane had hole in fuselage

  1. Closed captioning of: FAA: Plane had hole in fuselage

    >>> incident on board a recent flight from miami international airport .

    >> the airliner lost cabin pressure shortly after takeoff and had to return to miami. now authorities say they found a hole in the of body of the plane. nbc's tom costello is tracking this story. this is a nightmare for air travelers.

    >> a little bit of metal fatigue . this is american airlines flight 1640 tuesday night, left miami, bound for boston. about 9:15 they climbed to 31,000 feet and when they got there they suddenly lost cabin pressure . so much so that both the crew and the passengers had to dawn oxygen masks . they then discovered a small -- well, two feet, this is not so small, two foot hole in the fuselage right behind the cockpit near the left door. what you're seeing there a are the masks dropped down because passengers had to wear oxygen masks . and some of them were quite frightened. listen to what they had to say.

    >> we had an explosion. it sounded like it was coming from outside the plane. but you could feel it internally. lights were going on and off. noises were going on and off. people were hysterical around us, they were crying, screaming. they were grabbing on to each other.

    >> well, this again, was a 757 made by boeing. and we're told it was about a middle-aged 757. had about 25,000 flights on it. and this was the second time this has happened to a 757 in just a month. united airlines plane had some sort of metal fatigue about a month ago or so. as a result of both incidents now, the ntsb, the faa are involved and boeing is likely to issue a safety recall or a safety alert, i should say, to inform airlines to check their fuselages for any signs of metal fatigue . guys, back to you.

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