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Portland teacher recounts finding Boeing door plug in his yard

An Alaska Airlines door plug being held by two men in NTSB jackets in a residential front yard.
National Transportation Safety Board
In this Jan. 7, 2024 image released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the failed door plug is retrieved from a Southwest Portland neighborhood after it fell off of a Boeing 737-9 MAX flown by Alaska Airlines on Jan. 5.

The Portland teacher who found the door plug that fell off a Boeing 737 Max 9 while in flight on Friday night thinks the trees in his backyard may have helped preserve evidence.

The piece of the plane’s fuselage landed in Bob Sauer’s yard, not far from his house. “So I’m really glad it landed where it did.”

“The trees broke the fall like an airbag would,” said Bob Sauer, a science teacher at Catlin Gabel School. “So, it didn’t hit the ground very hard.”

Sauer heard about the incident Friday. But didn’t check his garden until Sunday, after a friend told him a cell phone from the flight had been found on a nearby street.

Sauer said he pulled out a flashlight and noticed something white in a tree.
“So my heart started beating a little faster,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, could this really be it?’ Sure enough it was.”

A man with a beard and glasses with hand held up to demonstrate what he's talking about.
Courtesy of Larry Hurst
Bob Sauer describes finding the missing door plug from a Boeing 737-9 MAX plane involved in an incident on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Jan. 5. The door plug was found in the backyard of Sauer’s home in Southwest Portland.

He said if the door had hit the house, it would have been bad.

“I think it’s pretty likely that it would have come at least through the roof. Or made a big dent in my car,” Sauer said. “So I’m really glad it landed where it did.”

After finding the door, Sauer called the National Transportation Safety Board. Staff there requested a picture, as someone had already been called out to check debris nearby that turned out to be a broken light lens.

NTSB agents arrived at Sauer’s home in Southwest Portland at about 7 a.m. Monday, with a truck and gloves to extract the door plug and drive it away. They gave Sauer a patch and a medallion.

Sauer is not a flight engineer but said he didn’t see anything obviously wrong with the door plug.

“It looked like it was the normal shape of a fuselage,” he said. “No kinks in it, or anything like that.”

He said he didn’t touch it for fear of destroying evidence.

Sauer said NTSB staff were both surprised and happy the door remained intact.

He was intrigued to see the door plug’s serial number and other manufacturing details apparently handwritten on the door in permanent marker.

“That’s an interesting way of doing inventory control,” he said.

Writing on the door plug says it was manufactured in Malaysia.

Asked about the handwriting, Boeing said they couldn’t address the issue because of the active NTSB investigation.

Sauer said he also asked NTSB staff whether the door fell off right above his home.

“They told me there was a 15 mph wind at the time,” he said. “And that because of the shape that this had — I mean it was curved like a plane fuselage — it would have done like a falling leaf on the way down. So that it wouldn’t have fallen straight down.”

Sauer burst into the news Sunday evening, when NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters the door plug had been found by “Bob,” a Portland teacher. Sauer said it was enough information that he almost immediately began getting emails from as far afield as Australia.

By the time he got to school Monday morning, everyone had questions.

“I’ve been mobbed by colleagues and students since I got here,” he laughed.

He said he spent the first 15 minutes of his class talking about it, “but students were more interested in the event than the science surrounding it.”

Sauer flies for vacations and prefers the window seat.

He’s booked a trip to Ireland this summer and fully intends to fly.

“Even with things like this happening, statistically it’s much safer to fly,” he said.

The Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner was not being used for flights over large bodies of water, after a warning light related to a pressurization problem lit up on three different flights. Alaska Airlines restricted the aircraft so it could land quickly if the warning light reappeared.

The 171 passengers and six crew members returned to Portland International Airport safely Friday night, with no serious injuries reported.

More than 140 of the 737 Max 9 jetliners are grounded while the airlines await instructions on how to inspect them.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a veteran journalist/producer working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He started as a cub reporter for newspapers in London, England in 1988. Then in 1991 he moved to Oregon and started freelancing. His work has appeared in publications as varied as The Oregonian, the BBC, the Salem Statesman Journal, Willamette Week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and the Voice of America. Kristian has won awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. He was embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and now specializes in business, law, health and politics.
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