Woman reportedly despondent before plane death

SAN JOSE, Calif. - A Hewlett-Packard Co. employee who fell 2,000 feet from an airplane into a backyard garden has left behind a baffled team of investigators who are trying to determine whether her death was a tragic accident or suicide.

Friends and co-workers described Elisabeth Mathild Otto as despondent, possibly from the stress of moving to the United States and starting a new job. They and her husband had suggested she seek psychological help, The San Jose Mercury News reported Saturday, citing sources familiar with her situation. The newspaper also reported that a source close to the investigation confirmed the woman had leaped out.

''We've ruled out foul play on behalf of any of the passengers,'' FBI spokesman Andrew Black said. ''We're looking at it strictly as a possible suicide or an accident.''

The FBI said two passengers who saw Otto plunge from the plane were so distraught that they were unable to tell the pilots what had happened. Police were not notified she was missing until 45 minutes after the plane landed in San Jose on Thursday night. Her body was found Friday afternoon.

FBI investigators interviewed passengers and the woman's business associates.

''We are deeply concerned and are helping authorities to determine what happened,'' Hewlett-Packard spokesman Dave Berman said. ''Out of respect for the individuals involved, we are not providing additional information at this time.''

The 15-seat de Havilland Twin Otter, which was operated as a commuter service for HP employees, was carrying five passengers and two pilots when it set out on its regular Thursday night flight from the Sacramento area to San Jose.

Soon after takeoff, the plane had to make an emergency landing because a warning light indicated the door was unlocked. The plane landed at 4:48 p.m. at the Sacramento Executive Airport, then took off again at 5:20 p.m. after the door was secured.

Three minutes later, the door opened and Otto plunged out about 10 miles south of Sacramento.

''When that plane hatch was opened, the passenger immediately in front of her turned around and observed a female passenger halfway out of the plane,'' Black said. ''He lunged over the seat, reached for her and was able to grab hold of her shoulder and attempted to pull her back into the plane.''

Amid what had to be a deafening and chaotic roar, the co-pilot managed to close the door, Black said. But the crew wasn't told the woman was gone and continued to San Jose, where the plane landed at 6:05 p.m. Police were later called from an HP office a few miles from the San Jose airport.

Black said the other passengers did not notice Otto behaving unusually before the incident.

FAA inspectors determined that mechanical malfunction had caused the door to open, spokesman Jerry Snyder said. The FAA also said inspectors did not believe the pilot erred in continuing to San Jose after securing the door a second time.

''The inspector couldn't find any fault in his proceedings,'' Snyder said.

Otto lived in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood with her husband.

''They seemed very nice. They appeared to be very hard working,'' neighbor Travis Pearson said. ''They weren't around a lot.''


Associated Press Writer Justin Pritchard contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Hewlett-Packard: http://www.hp.com


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