A passenger diverted to St. John's this week because of extreme turbulence on an American Airlines flight to Milan said it was like being on an elevator, "going down, down, down."

Mariano Orlando was sitting in Row 22 and said there was no warning of trouble on the Jan. 24 flight.

"The dropping down was very surprise," he told CBC in an interview from Zurich. "Nobody mentioned something. It was just a shock." 

Orlando said the plane went down three times, "down, down, down and then stop, with everything shaking."

The pilot later told passengers, he said, that the plane had plummeted 5,000 feet from an altitude of 33,000 feet, and that it was like going into "a white hole."

An aircraft tracking website — called Flightradar24.com — shows the plane dropped about 2,000 feet.

American Airlines

The American Airlines flight diverted to St. john's so injured passengers could be treated. (CBC)

Orlando, 61, wasn't injured, but said others were.

'Screaming and yelling'

"Screaming and yelling from the back and side of the plane and the voice of one of the hostesses crying, saying 'we need a doctor, we need somebody back here.'"

Orlando, who was born in Sicily and has lived in the United States since 1980, said the whole experience happened quickly.

"The captain told us were going to St. John's because people were hurt," he said.

"We was in shock. Nobody can breathe regular."

American Airlines Flight 206 map from Miami to St. John's

American Airlines Flight 206 was about 90 minutes from St. john's, enroute from Miami to Milan. (The Canadian Press)

When passengers got to the Delta Hotel, they asked the pilot why there had been no warning about the turbulence.

"He said, 'no, this is something after 35 years I've been a pilot, I've never had an experience like that in my whole life. We call this a white hole.'"

'Severe clear air turbulence'

In an email to CBC on Wednesday, American Airlines said the episode on Flight 206 was brief, but severe.

"The seatbelt sign was illuminated at the time. The aircraft encountered three seconds of severe clear air turbulence at 29,000 feet, approximately 420 nautical miles southeast of YYT," wrote airline spokesman Ross Feinstein.

The airline said three flight attendants and two passengers were taken to hospital and later released. An additional two passengers were treated on site, but did not require medical attention in hospital. 

Orlando, meanwhile, said he will have to fly back to California in about a month.

He's not sure how he will feel getting on a plane again.

The Federal Aviation Administration told CBC that an average of 31 people — passengers and crew — are injured each year because of turbulence.

The FAA says three people have died over the past three decades.

With files from Mark Quinn