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‘All of us on that flight were questioning if we were going to be here today’: Utah Jazz recount harrowing minutes aboard wounded plane

Team members were texting loved ones their goodbyes after a flock of birds destroyed one of their jet’s engines on Tuesday; star guard Donovan Mitchell wound up not making the trip as a result.

(Brandon Dill | AP) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) brings the ball up court in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn.

As the Utah Jazz were taking off Tuesday afternoon to fly to Memphis for Wednesday night’s game, Jordan Clarkson was “being a bad kid” and getting up to grab something out of his bag.

Just as he was almost back to his seat, that’s when everyone heard — and felt — the boom.

Their chartered plane had struck a flock of birds, shredding the jet’s left engine and spawning a sense of helpless dread as many on board wondered if they were about to die.

“For a good 10, 15 minutes, I think all of us on that flight were questioning if we were going to be here today,” Mike Conley said in Wednesday’s postgame media session. “That’s how serious it was for us. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know that some guys were trying to text family, just in case. It was that kind of situation.”

Clarkson backed that up.

“For a lot of people on that plane, it was like one of those flights where you were sending out texts — like you’ve seen in movies where a plane is about the crash,” he said. “It got to that point, where we was all on the plane like, ‘This might really be the end.’”

Conley recalled how he, Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Miye Oni were all situated between the two wings when “all of a sudden it felt like there was an explosion.”

He described feeling as though the plane had rammed into something massive. Then, the left engine useless, the plane listed to the side. Then it lost altitude. Those sitting at the rear of the aircraft reported seeing flames come from the engine. The jet began to shake violently.

“It was obvious that something was really wrong with the plane,” Conley said. “It felt like the plane was breaking apart in midair.”

As the flight crew worked to diagnose what had happened and to get the plane back under control, the guard added, a feeling of “complete helplessness” overtook the passengers.

Coach Quin Snyder, recounting the situation pregame, described the silent seriousness of the ensuing moments.

“One of the engines blew, and there’s a time — in this case, probably a 10- or 15-minute window — where the pilots are assessing the situation, and no one really knows what’s going on,” he said. “… The pilots — you get an appreciation for their expertise and their training and everything that they do to keep all of us safe — they’re going through their different protocols and checklists, and while that’s happening, you’re in limbo. And that’s a traumatic and eerie feeling.”

Clarkson recalled the calming effect it had when the flight attendants, and subsequently the pilot, got on the intercom to explain what had happened, and how they were turning the plane around and heading back to Salt Lake City International Airport.

Not that their words could completely alleviate the fear that had set in.

“They said they were turning the plane around. So that definitely was a comforting thing. But we were all looking out the window like, ‘Man, just land anywhere. We don’t care,’” Clarkson said. “‘Please just put this plane on the ground and just let us live and get past this.’”

The plane landed safely at the airport. The Jazz disembarked, waited there a few hours for a replacement aircraft to arrive, then eventually made their way to Memphis — blessedly uneventfully — on Tuesday night.

Well, everyone except for All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. Shortly after their second plane took off, the Jazz announced that Mitchell would be missing the game, that he was not with the team for personal reasons.

Snyder politely demurred when asked if the combination of Mitchell’s publicly-acknowledged fear of flying and Tuesday’s incident were the reason for the guard’s absence (“I never comment on personal situations with any of our players,” he said, “and I hope you can respect that”), though Clarkson all but acknowledged that was the reason.

“It was a crazy situation — I understand fully why Don didn’t come,” he said.

Snyder did say that the team convened Wednesday morning to give everyone a chance to work through their lingering emotions.

Those taut and uncertain moments, he explained, couldn’t help but stir up a variety of intense feelings.

“I don’t know that an experience like that is just suddenly passed on and away. Everybody’s impacted in different ways, all very significant,” he said. “And it wasn’t something that we were going to solve by just talking through everything, but I think it was important to acknowledge what we all went through [Tuesday], and, really, that same feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the fragility that we all live with, sometimes without being aware of it.”

They’re certainly aware of it now.

“It put perspective on life for all of us,” Conley said. “We’re just all thankful to be here and doing what we love to do.

“… We’re thankful it wasn’t as serious as it could have been,” he added, “but it was scary.”

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