SAN JOSE — A bizarre mystery unfolded Friday out of a usually routine corporate flight: Why did a Hewlett-Packard employee jump or fall from a small company plane at 2,000 feet, despite an attempt by another passenger to restrain her?
Sacramento police Friday afternoon found the body of the young blonde woman, dressed in a dark suit, in a in a vegetable garden, about 200 feet behind a house and three blocks from Susan B. Anthony Elementary School.
The coroner’s office identified her as Elisabeth Mathild Otto, 31, of San Francisco.
The FBI said two passengers who saw Otto plunge from the plane were so distraught that they were unable to communicate to 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.
“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 15-seat plane, a de Havilland Twin Otter, was carrying five passengers and two pilots when it left Lincoln Regional Airport in Roseville, northeast of Sacramento, late Thursday afternoon.
For 22 years, Hewlett-Packard has operated the flight service for employees who travel between the high-tech giant’s Silicon Valley home base and its Roseville campus. Never before had there been an injury or a fatality, HP spokesman Dave Berman said.
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 securing the door.
Three minutes later, the door opened.
“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.”
Otto flew out the door at 2,000 feet, about 10 miles south of Sacramento.
Amid what had to be a deafening and chaotic roar, the co-pilot managed to close the door, Black said.
But the crew didn’t realize the woman was gone and continued on 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.
Hewlett-Packard said Otto worked in the purchasing department. Black said the other passengers did not notice Otto behaving unusually before the incident.
The company would not comment beyond a short statement issued early Friday.
“We are deeply concerned and are helping authorities to determine what happened,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the individuals involved, we are not providing additional information at this time.”
FAA inspectors determined that a mechanical malfunction had not 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.
After Otto’s body was found Friday, schoolchildren in white shirts and navy blue pants watched police and reporters circle the area. Police chaplain Frank Russell talked to concerned residents in the poor neighborhood.
“One family I’ve spoken to was worried about the ‘what-ifs,”’ Russell said. “What if the woman jumped out a second earlier and landed in their house?”