MIAMI -- An Eastern Airlines jet with 172 people aboard lost power in all three engines Thursday and was only a few thousand feet from the ocean, its passengers braced for the crash, when the pilot got one of the engines restarted.
The plane, an L-1011, managed to land safely at Miami International Airport.
''Be ready to open the doors and hit the water,'' passenger Tom Nolan said the pilot told the passengers aboard Flight 855 en route to the Bahamas before the engine was restarted.
An investigation revealed late Thursday all three of the failed engines were missing O-rings, tiny, pliable washer-like rings that prevent oil leakage.
'We don't know how the O-rings came to be missing,' said Eastern spokesman Jim Ashlock. 'That will be the subject of the investigation. We can't speculate on anything right now.'
Pilot R.E. Boddy had lost 20,000 feet of altitude before he was able to get one of the engines restarted at an altitude of about 3,000 feet above the ocean, when the jetliner was still 7 miles off the Florida coast.
An armada of rescue vessels, including Coast Guard cutters and helicopters, was speeding to the scene of the expected ditching.
With a Coast Guard Falcon jet flying escort, the jetliner lurched back to Miami on its No. 2 engine, the one in the tail, and landed safely at 9:45 a.m. EDT.
The passengers, many still wearing life jackets they had donned at the pilot's orders, emerged shaking and in some cases weeping.
'It was a great big sigh of relief,' said Coast Guard petty officer Mike Kelley, who confirmed none of the 162 passengers and 10 crew members was injured.
Passenger Bruce Jacobs said the pilot announced over the intercom system that he might have to make an emergency landing on the water.
'He said, 'There's something wrong, mechanically wrong. The way he said it, there was panic in his voice. At one point, he said ditching was imminent. When he said that, I don't think I ever heard a worse phrase in my life,' Jacobs said.
'I was so scared, but I'm OK now,' a young boy told his parents over the telephone after the plane had landed safely.
'Air travel will never be the same,' said passenger Betsy Taylor.
The Lockheed wide-bodied jet had left Miami for the 45-minute flight to Nassau at 8:56 a.m. EDT. But between 7 and 20 miles south of Bimini, engine problems developed.
The plane was at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and had prepared to start its descent toward Nassau, officials said, when an indicator light came on, showing oil was leaking on engine No. 2. The pilot then shut down the engine and turned around for Miami.
Then engine No. 3 on the left wing also went out, followed by engine No. 1 on the right wing. The plane dropped to an altitude of 3,000 to 4,000 feet, as Boddy tried frantically to re-start the engines.
Finally, engine No. 2 kicked in, Ashlock said.
'He still had plenty of altitude and he was able to stabilize things,' he said. 'He was gliding down, in control all the time. There was never any plunging out of control or anything like that. He had time to instruct the flight crew to prepare for an emergency landing, and alerted the Coast Guard.'
The O-rings are easily replaced and inspectors examined the rest of the Eastern fleet to make sure the seals were in place on other aircraft, Ashlock said. Aeronautics supply companies estimated the O-rings cost between $1 and $3 each.
Some of the passengers turned down the offer of another flight to the Bahamas, canceled their plans for a gambling and shopping vacation and went home.
Air traffic controllers in Miami alerted the Coast Guard to prepare for a possible ocean landing. Several Coast Guard cutters, four helicopters, a C-130 aircraft and three small boats sped to the area.
Each passenger was given a flotation vest and flight attendants explained emergency landing procedures. Most passengers remained calm, an Eastern spokesman said.
'Anybody who wasn't scared was a damned fool,' said passenger John Thomas, of Garden Grove, Calif.
The aircraft was closer to Nassau than Miami when the engines failed, but the pilot chose to return to Miami because the airport had better emergency facilities, Myers said.
In December 1972, an Eastern L-1011 crashed in the Florida Everglades killing 101 of the 163 people aboard when the crew failed to realize the plane had slipped out of control of its automatic pilot, safety investigators said.