Shrapnel from a blown jet engine crashed through a window of a Southwest Airlines flight and caused such a perilous drop in air pressure that a passenger suffered fatal injuries after nearly being sucked outside.
Passengers recall a harrowing scene where desperate crew members and others tried to plug the broken window, while also trying to save the mortally wounded woman, identified as a bank executive and mother of two.
The battered jet eventually made an emergency landing in Philadelphia and all other passengers made it off without serious injuries. But not before everyone on board used oxygen masks that dropped from the ceiling and many said their prayers and braced for impact.
“I just remember holding my husband’s hand, and we just prayed and prayed and prayed,” said passenger Amanda Bourman, of New York. “And the thoughts that were going through my head of course were about my daughters, just wanting to see them again and give them a big hug so they wouldn’t grow up without parents.”
Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 out of New York had 144 passengers and a crew of five onboard, Southwest said in a statement. The plane was met on the tarmac by a phalanx of emergency vehicles that quickly sprayed the area with safety foam and aided the injured.
Jennifer Riordan of Albuquerque, N.M., was identified late Tuesday as the victim who died.
Riordan, a vice president of community relations for Wells Fargo bank and graduate of the University of New Mexico, was the first passenger death on a U.S. airline since 2009— and the first ever in Southwest Airlines’ history.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez called Riordan “an incredible woman who put her family and community first” and said her loss would be felt across the state.
“The hearts of all New Mexicans are with the Riordan family,” Martinez, a Republican, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Passengers on board described chaos as the decompression led to Riordan being partially sucked out of the plane. They rushed to try and pull her back inside, but her injuries were too grave.
Seven others were injured in the incident. Tracking data from FlightAware.com showed Flight 1380 was heading west over Pennsylvania at about 32,200 feet and traveling 500 mph when it abruptly turned toward Philadelphia.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters at a late-night briefing that he is “very concerned” about metal fatigue in several of Flight 1380’s jet engines, particularly in the fan blades. He said a piece of one of the jet engines was found about 70 miles north of the Philadelphia airport.
Bourman was asleep on the plane when she heard a sudden noise and the oxygen masks dropped.
“Everybody was crying and upset,” she said. “You had a few passengers that were very strong, and they kept yelling to people, you know, ‘It’s OK! We’re going to do this!’”
Another passenger, Marty Martinez, posted a brief Facebook Live video showing him donning his oxygen mask. “Something is wrong with our plane!,” he wrote. “It appears we are going down! Emergency landing!! Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas!!”
Southwest said the Boeing 737-700 left New York’s LaGuardia Airport shortly after 10:30 a.m. ET, bound for Dallas Love Field. The airport said the plane had landed “safely” and that passengers were being brought into the terminal.
Thiel said a small fire was found in one engine and fuel was leaking. At least one window and the fuselage were also damaged, officials said. AP also reported that the twin-engine 737 apparently blew an engine at 30,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window.
Passengers commended one of the pilots for her cool-headed handling of the emergency. She walked through the aisle and talked with passengers to make sure they were OK after the plane touched down.
“She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her,” said Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas. “I’m going to send her a Christmas card, I’m going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”
Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive officer, commended the flight crew for safely landing the plane but said the company and the NTSB were in the early stages of investigating exactly what led to the incident.
“This is a sad day and on behalf of the entire Southwest family, I want to extend my deepest sympathies for the family and loved ones of our deceased customer,” Kelly said. “Truly, this is a tragic loss.”
In addition to being the first fatality aboard a U.S. passenger airline since 2009, Kelly said it was Southwest’s first fatality ever.
“Let me assure you the safety of our customers and crew is our uncompromising priority,” he said.
Southwest flies Boeing 737 aircraft exclusively, with a fleet of about 700 planes.
“It is a very, very reliable engine,” Kelly said. “The airplane in my opinion is proven. It’s very reliable. It has the greatest success of any aircraft type over a long, long period of time. It doesn’t create any doubt in my mind, at least at this point.”
The plane Tuesday was a 737-700, but the entire fleet has the type of GE engine that failed, Kelly said.
“We are in close contact with the manufacturers,” said Kelly, who said the company is cooperating with investigators from FAA, DOT and NTSB. “At this point, it’s very premature to say what changes we might need to make, if any.”
Kelly has tried to contact the victim’s family but hadn’t reached them by 6:30 p.m. Eastern.
“I reached out to the family and at this point have not made contact,” Kelly said.
The plane was delivered to Southwest in July 2000 and has made about 40,000 flights. The engine last had a major overhaul about 10,000 flights ago, and the plane’s most recent inspection was Sunday, although Kelly couldn’t say what was inspected.
“There is no information that there were any issues with the airplane or the engines,” Kelly said.
Flights continued to arrive and depart, but the incident led to delays of other flights, the airport said in its statement. The FAA had issued “ground stop” for planes on the ground at other airports waiting to depart Philadelphia. The ground stop was lifted shortly before 2 p.m.