For residents of Broomfield and other suburbs near Denver International Airport (DIA), the sound of commercial airplanes flying overhead is not a rare occurrence; in fact, it’s something they hear all day, everyday. But one year ago, on a chilly Saturday in February, that sound in the sky was accompanied by a big “boom.”
Kirby Klements and his wife, Maryann, were sitting in the living room of their Broomfield home when they heard the strange, far-off noise. About 20 seconds later, they were greeted with an even more terrifying sound, as a more than 250-pound metal ring crashed down in their front yard.
“If you’ve ever heard two automobiles crash into each other at 40 miles an hour, imagine sitting right next to that and having that sound when you’re sitting in your house,” Klements says. “And then having this big giant thing rolling in front of the window.”
After the immediate shock and confusion, Klements, who previously served in the Air Force, was able to piece together part of the mystery. “After this thing lands in my yard, I opened the door, and I immediately knew what it was. I was like, This is the front of an engine of an airplane,” he says. Klements quickly began looking for a plume of smoke on the horizon. “I’m thinking, Where did this plane crash? Because you don’t expect that big of a piece to fall out of the sky and not have the plane crash.”
The giant ring turned out to be an engine cowling from a Boeing 777 jet that was supposed to carry 231 passengers on United Flight 328 from Denver International Airport (DIA) to Honolulu, Hawaii, on February 20, 2021. The plane’s right engine failed shortly after takeoff, sending debris raining over Broomfield and prompting the aircraft to return to DIA for an emergency landing. No one on board—or on the ground—was seriously injured in the incident. But the Broomfield community below was left to pick up the pieces.
Engine failure on Boeing 777 United aircraft. Plane took off from Denver and returned safely in 20 minutes. Engine parts fell soon after take off. Pilots flew the aircraft back safely. Look at the engine, it’s hardly in shape. pic.twitter.com/gByQ9Sj85q
— Nagarjun Dwarakanath (@nagarjund) February 21, 2021
“All this [material] starts falling out of the sky—like leaves. it’s just floating down. And the sky’s just full of it,” Klements recalls. “The stuff hadn’t even fallen to the ground completely, and the cops are already showing up.”
Klements was one of several residents who had property damaged by the debris storm: The engine part clipped the left corner of his garage, smashed into the cab of his Blue Dodge Ram truck, and “just lightly rolled out of the truck bed and leaned up against the tree right there in the front yard,” he says. Other neighbors watched as parts landed in their lawn, fell through their roof, or rained down across a popular nearby park.
“I’m so glad that nobody was hurt,” says Hayden Smith, who happened to be taking photographs at the Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora that day, when he witnessed the plane’s initial engine failure overhead.
“As it was coming towards me, I can see through my viewfinder, the view of this plane with the engine just completely torn to pieces, coming closer and closer. Eventually, I can make out the individual flames that were shooting out,” Smith says.
Rachel Haslett, public information officer for the Broomfield Police, agrees that it’s remarkable no one was injured. “The soccer fields [at Commons Park] were littered with debris. If you think of a normal Saturday, the soccer fields have thousands of people on them,” Haslett says, noting that there just so happened to be no organized sports that day. “Had there been kids and families and hundreds of cars parked, it probably would have been completely different outcome.”
United Airlines grounded two dozen of its Boeing 777 planes the following day, after the Federal Aviation Administration called for additional safety inspections. An official investigation released by the National Transportation Safety Board on March 5 said the Flight 328 engine failure was a result of metal fatigue on the fan blades. Several passengers who had been on board the flight when the engine exploded have filed a class-action lawsuit against United Airlines that is currently still pending.
Klements received a settlement from United Airlines in November for the property damage, including for his truck, which was totaled, and needed repairs to his roof and gutters. But he and his wife are still waiting on a settlement for the portion of their lawsuit alleging emotional distress.
“I had that truck sitting in my driveway for six months,” he says. “Every time I left the house in the morning and came home at night, that damaged truck was right there. So I thought about it every single day.”
The incident has also made it difficult for Klements to enjoy some of his favorite pastimes like towing his camper to meet his kids and grandkids, who live in Grand Junction, in the mountains. “In 2020, we went camping probably 15 times or more to see my grandchildren. Then we couldn’t go camping at all,” he says. “It’s really a drag.”
Klements notes that the process of recuperating from the damages has been more frustrating than people might realize, as United drags on negotiations on the Klements’ compensation, and a nationwide shortage of car inventory exacerbates the challenges of replacing his old one.
“I still run into people. They’ll go ‘Oh, did you get a new truck?’ I go, ‘Get a new truck, Are you kidding me? I’ll be lucky if I can afford a used truck, let alone buy a new car,’ ” Klements say. “It’s just the perception that different people have and how quickly they think it’s going to get settled … it all takes longer than you think it would.”