Raleigh woman takes viral ride after 'we're going down' announcement on flight

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 16, 2013 

— A pilot’s announcement that a Southwest Airlines flight was “going down” this week was just the beginning of an unusual ride for Grace Stroud, a Raleigh psychologist. What followed was a harrowing descent, a safe landing, an interview with CNN and a whole lot of attention.

At about 5:40 on Tuesday evening, the plane's loudspeakers made an odd noise. Then the captain, sounding anxious, said "We're in trouble. We're going down," according to Stroud.

As it turned out, Flight 3426 was descending by thousands of feet to deal with a maintenance issue as it approached Raleigh-Durham International Airport before landing safely Tuesday night, according to a Southwest spokesman. The pilot was simply notifying the cabin “that he was going down to a lower altitude” to resolve the problem, according to Southwest.

But passengers soon after told news media that they thought the plane was crashing, and the apparent misunderstanding spiraled into a social-media crisis for the airline – and for witnesses like Stroud, 61, who gripped her seatmate’s hand as the plane dropped thousands of feet.

One woman spoke to a local TV station for a story that soon went viral. Stroud posted a comment on the story, thinking she was only using her first name – but she apparently gave away her last name too, opening the floodgates.

“CNN called me at my home at 5 a.m. yesterday morning,” Stroud said Friday afternoon, after things had calmed down. The news network brought her to a local studio and cut an interview that aired the same day.

“I’m sure everybody went through their private moments,” said Stroud, who was returning from a Key West vacation on Tuesday, in her CNN interview. “My moment was, ‘OK, so this is how I’m going to die’ and ‘At least this will be quick.’”

Then she collected calls steadily through Thursday, with Charlie Rose’s show, CBS News and the N.Y. Daily News among the inquirers.

‘The things that people say’

Meanwhile, the stories drew massive interest online. A CNN story featuring Stroud had about 1,700 comments Friday night. The most popular post criticized the passengers who have spoken out, suggesting that they thank the pilot for a safe landing instead. Stroud also found a comment seeming to wish death upon her, she said, among the floods of criticism of both the pilot and witnesses.

“There are some sickos out there under anonymous names. It’s unbelievable the things that people say,” said the longtime Raleigh resident. “I just stopped reading.”

But celebrity, especially of the viral nature, is fleeting. “Oh, yeah, thank God, it’s been a quiet day,” Stroud said Friday. “I couldn’t imagine if you were famous, because it doesn’t die down.”

Like other passengers, Stroud was offered a voucher for a Southwest flight. She isn’t holding her momentary distress against the airline, she said. The FAA has described the issue as a pressurization problem, and Southwest has said it’s not an uncommon occurrence.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Stroud said. “It was just an awful mistake, but we just didn’t know it. Our feelings were very real.”

Still, she couldn’t resist a quip at Southwest’s expense.

The airline “should have offered us two free tickets,” she said, “so you don’t have to hold the hands of a stranger when it goes down.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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