SAN DIEGO - Passengers concerned about their safety marched off a Spirit Airlines plane after a strong odor was detected from the vents.
"It was like a nightmare we couldn't wake from," said Curtis Waible, a Portland resident.
Waible, and his wife Chelsea, were headed home to Portland Tuesday night -- their plane on the runway -- when they smelled something.
"I smell an overwhelming smell of lighter fluid coming out of the vent above me," said Chelsea Waible.
She said the flight originated in Las Vegas and was two hours late leaving Las Vegas because of maintenance.
On the runway at Lindbergh Field, the plane carrying some 100 passengers went back to the gate.
Philip Low, a renowned neuroscientist who was bound for a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, decided to get off the plane.
"If you smell gasoline on a plane, that means anybody could light a match and there would be fire," said Low.
Back on board, the Waibles said an airport maintenance worker sniffed around, declared the odor gone and said the smell was not uncommon.
The plane left the gate again, but the Waibles said the smell returned.
"I looked over at my wife, who was in tears, and I was going to do whatever it took for us to get off the airplane," Curtis Waible said.
Earlier, another man had loudly voiced his worries. Now, a flight attendant was doing the talking.
"If you don't feel comfortable on this flight anymore, you need to leave, and sir, you're definitely getting off," said Chelsea Waible, referring to the male passenger who spoke out.
The Waibles said 12 people marched off the plane, including some who vomited from the smell.
They said 45 minutes later, they saw the rest of the passengers get off, after the flight was grounded. They said it was an hour before they found a customer service representative to assist with a hotel and re-booking.
It's not the first public relations hit taken by Spirit Airlines, which has suffered a string of bad press for complaints and unpopular fees, including a non-toll-free customer service number.
A Facebook page titled "Boycott Spirit Airlines" now has more than 36,000.
Low said his flight with Spirit was his last.
"This is a case where the crew was convinced by the passengers. That should tell you something," said Low, who was able to make his meeting with the Dalai Lama.
While Spirit didn't answer Team 10 questions about the cause of the odor, the company issued this statement.
"The flight returned to the gate as a precaution due to an odor in the cabin and the flight was then cancelled. While we understand that this is an inconvenience for our customers, the safety of everyone onboard is always our top priority … The plane has returned to service.
Customers were given the option of a refund or rebooked on another flight. They also received meal vouchers and hotel accommodations if necessary. And they also each received a $50 future flight credit."