It took two days to find a door-shaped piece of a plane that was propelled into the air Friday evening when it detached from its host aircraft.
Bob Sauer, a high school teacher, said he hadn't found the panel, called a door plug, in his backyard sooner because he didn't look. On Sunday, he said, a neighbor suggested he check his property, but he took his time, eventually searching his backyard that night with a flashlight.
"It still didn't seem very likely to me," Sauer, who lives in the Portland, Oregon, area, said in an interview Monday evening.
He had followed the news of Friday's accident, when the door plug blew out of a Boeing 737 Max 9 that was filled almost to capacity with passengers.
The accident during the Alaska Airlines flight exposed a large opening in the fuselage and prompted the pilots to turn back to Portland International Airport for a safe emergency landing, they said. No major injuries were reported.
During his nighttime search, Sauer, who teaches physics, spotted something amid the trees he'd planted 20 years ago.
“I noticed against the back property wall underneath that line of cedar trees that I’d planted something gleaming and white,” he said. “I thought, that doesn't belong there. That’s not normal.”
He got closer, his heart thumping, and saw what it was. The door plug was nestled in the trees that appeared to have broken its fall.
"It was unbelievable that that thing that people had been looking for all weekend happened to be in my yard," Sauer said.
Sauer reached out to the National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators — skeptical at first because an earlier find turned out to be just a fluorescent light fixture — asked him for a photo. That confirmed it was America’s most-wanted piece of jetliner fuselage.
NTSB personnel were at Sauer's home first thing Monday morning to take possession of the panel.
"We picked it up this morning, brought it back to begin the examination of the door plug itself in relation really to the plug surround structure," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in an interview earlier Monday.
It was being sent to the agency's laboratory for a deeper, microscopic look at its materials, fasteners and condition, she said.
The door plug, which acted almost as a cork would on sparkling wine, popped and led the cabin to depressurize explosively, she said.
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It happened at 5:12 p.m., about six minutes after takeoff from Portland International Airport, the NTSB said. The Alaska Airlines flight was only about 14,800 feet in the air, en route to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
The aircraft carried 171 passengers and six crew members, as it headed to Ontario, California, with only a few seats left empty, including the two next to the door plug. Headrests flew away, and frames were torqued on two seats, Homendy said.
Door plugs are used to cover gaps in the fuselage where emergency exits would go if a plane had a greater passenger capacity.
The panels are held in place with specific fasteners and sealed, in part, with the help of the cabin's normal pressurization, which allows planes to be habitable and circulate necessary oxygen so high in the sky.
What caused the door plug to blow out over the Portland area hasn’t been determined.
In an interview Monday, Homendy called the door plug “a really, really key piece of evidence.”
The NTSB had asked for anyone who discovered the door plug to report its location and send photos to the agency. As the NTSB predicted, the panel landed in the community of Cedar Hills, about 7 miles west of central Portland.
Two cellphones believed to belong to passengers were also found nearby, Homendy said.
“I want to start by thanking Bob,” Homendy said at a news conference Monday night, also expressing her gratitude to the community.
“Bob was apparently a star with all his students today," she said.
Sauer said he used the episode to demonstrate some elements of physics to students. But he said more time was initially spent at school Monday discussing his notoriety.
"By the time I got to school," he said, "pretty much the whole school knew about it."
Homendy said the agency offered to send personnel to Sauer's class for a presentation on how the NTSB conducts such investigations to help make travel safer.
But Sauer said he turned down the offer: "If it wasn't finals week, I would have tried to take them up on that."