Physics teacher who found plane debris in backyard explains why he thinks iPhone survived

Last week, a door plug in an Alaska Airline’s Boeing 737 Max 9 blew out just minutes after takeoff, creating a gaping hole in the side of the passenger plane while traveling in Oregon at more than 400 mph at an altitude three miles high. 

Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt and the plane made a safe emergency landing. And in the hours that followed, people in one Portland-area neighborhood found themselves on a scavenger hunt for various debris that fell from the sky. 


An Alaska Airlines Embraer aircraft is seen taking off at Portland International Airport on January 9, 2024 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images)

One man, Bob Sauer, found the door plug intact in his backyard. 

His next door neighbor, Diane Faherty, saw her dogs sniffing at something on her back patio. It turned out to be a seat’s headrest. 

And about a mile away, a man named Sean Bates found something that’s perhaps the most shocking discoveryan iPhone, in airplane mode, still at half a battery that opened to a baggage claim receipt for the flight. 

And the screen was still fully intact. 

RELATED: Alaska Airlines door plug blow out: What’s known about the Boeing emergency

So how did the device survive a 3-mile drop when phones seem to barely survive a fall from our pockets? 

Sauer happens to be a physics teacher and shared his thoughts with KPTV FOX 12


Images of Bob Sauer, who found the fully intact door plug that blew off an Alaska Airlines flight Jan. 5, 2024, and the wooded area nearby.

"In my physics A class we just finished talking about impulsive momentum, so that comes up as well. The trees acted like an airbag," he said, meaning they slowed the phone’s impact on the ground. 

The fact that the phone landed on grass, and not a harder surface such as concrete, helped as well. 

RELATED: Man finds iPhone 'perfectly intact' that likely fell 16,000 feet from Alaska Airlines flight

Employees with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have even visited Sauer’s classroom since his door plug discovery, which also remained fully intact for the same reasons. 

The Oregonian reported Sauer got a "Special Operations" patch and an NTSB board member medallion as souvenirs.

"(My students) were more interested in my story than the physics for today anyway, but some of my colleagues were wondering how soon this is going to make it onto one of my tests," he joked.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Jan. 5 incident and all Boeing 737 Max 9s that use door plugs were temporarily grounded for further inspection.

This story was reported from Detroit.