As a Southwest Airlines jet hurtled 32,000 feet over suburban Philadelphia, a rare engine explosion caused a passenger’s window to burst, partially pulling the woman sitting next to the opening out of the plane.
Fellow passengers frantically worked to yank her back inside the airliner as it depressurized and quickly descended thousands of feet per minute, according to several passengers.
The frightening ordeal played out Tuesday morning onboard Southwest flight 1380 as it headed for Dallas. The Boeing 737-700 was about 20 minutes into its journey from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when the engine failure occurred. The plane, carrying 144 passengers and five crew, diverted to Philadelphia International Airport where it made an emergency landing at 11:20 a.m.
U.S. & World
Stories that affect your life across the U.S. and around the world.
Passengers described hearing a loud explosion from the left engine — one of two onboard — before debris peppered the fuselage and shattered that window.
"The plane dropped immediately," said Matt Tranchin, who was sitting three rows behind the broken window. "Plane smelled like smoke. Ash was all around us."
The woman, identified as Jennifer Riordan of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was pulled out of the plane up to her waist — her blood splattering other windows, passengers said.
"You hear the pop and she was sucked out from the waist up," one passenger told NBC Nightly News. "There was blood on the windows...her arms were actually out of the airplane and her head was out of the airplane."
Eric Zilbert, another passenger, said "several heroic gentlemen" pulled Riordan back into the plane and immediately performed CPR. Tranchin said she was covered in blood.
Peggy Phillips, a nurse, said she and another passenger performed about 20 minutes of CPR on the victim.
"It just wasn't going to be enough," Phillips said.
The pilot, speaking to air traffic control via the radio, asked for paramedics to meet the airplane to help injured passengers.
"We have a part of the aircraft missing," the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, said.
Asked whether the plane was on fire, she responded: "No, it's not on fire but part of it’s missing. They said there is a hole and someone went out."
Once the plane touched down in Philadelphia, firefighters doused it with fire-retardant foam to smother a small fire and gas leak coming from the engine, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said.
Passengers shared photos of major damage to the plane's left engine. The engine inlet was shredded, with metal bent outward. The pane of a window just behind the left wing was missing.
TV station KOAT in Albuquerque first identified Riordan, a resident of the city, on Tuesday afternoon. Her children's school, Annunciation Catholic School, sent an email to the school community breaking the news of her passing and asking for prayers.
Her death is the first on board fatality in Southwest's 51 year history. On Wednesday, the Medical Examiner revealed Riordan died from blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso. Her death was ruled an accident.
Philadelphia fire officials said seven passengers were treated on the tarmac for minor injuries.
The plane was traveling around 500 mph when the incident happened, according to a tracking tool on Flight Aware, and descended by more than 3,000 feet per minute until the pilots leveled out around 10,000 feet.
Arthur Wolk, an aviation expert, said that is a modest rate of descent and indicated the pilot had control of the aircraft.
Still, passengers were horrified by the turbulent incident.
Tranchin, a 34-year-old from Dallas, said he spent 15 minutes calling family to say he loved them.
"My wife is in her third trimester. We’re expecting our first child. It was one of those things when you don’t want to terrify your family, but if you do go down, you don’t want to not say goodbye," he said.
Another terrified passenger posted a live video to his Facebook page during the ordeal. The grainy footage shows a man attempting to secure his yellow oxygen mask while updating loved ones following his feed.
"Something is wrong with our plane! It appears we are going down! Emergency landing!! Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas!!" Facebook user Marty Martinez wrote. He then added, "We are bracing for landing!!"
Once the plane touched down on Philadelphia International Airport's runway 27, the passengers erupted into applause and thanked the crew.
Todd Baur, the father-in-law of another passenger, described the crew as "incredible," saying that the pilots and flight attendants acted quickly and calmly.
Alfred Tumlinson, who was sitting in the rear of the plane, heaped praise on them.
"The crew and the pilot…that lady has the nerves of steel…at this point you don’t know where you’re going you don’t know where you’re going to end up, you just have to keep everybody calm," he said.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt and a team of investigators landed in Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon to inspect the aircraft. During a Tuesday night press conference, Sumwalt said a part of the plane's engine covering was found in Bernville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles west of Philadelphia. He also said one of the engine's fan blades was separated and missing.
The blade was separated at the point where it would come to the hub and there was evidence of metal fatigue, according to Sumwalt.
The engine — a CFM56 — is widely used in commercial aviation and is designed to prevent debris from breaking off the engine and flying into the body. The engine will eventually be detached from the plane and taken to an off-site facility for study.
Sumwalt said the NTSB investigation will take an estimated 12 to 15 months.
The manufacturer of the engine put out a service bulletin in the fall, telling all airlines to inspect the fan blades after a similar incident involving another Southwest flight. Officials with the airline checked Flight 1380 on Sunday. The FAA is expected to order mandatory inspections soon.
The plane's flight recorders have also been secured and will be returned to the NTSB's headquarters near Washington, D.C. immediately, he said.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly released a video statement Tuesday evening sending condolences to the family of the deceased passenger and thanking the crew for their actions.
“I am immensely grateful there are no other reports of injuries but truly this is a tragic loss,” he said.
“This is a sad day and our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of the deceased customer please join us in offering our thoughts and prayers and support to all those affected by today's tragedy.”
This is not the first time a Southwest plane had a major issue recently.
In February, a cabin fire forced Southwest passengers to deplane before their flight took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, and San Jose. The fire — believed to be in the Boeing 737's auxiliary power unit — caused the plane's emergency chutes to deploy to evacuate 139 passengers and five crew members. A few minor injuries were reported, but no one was transported to hospitals.
In 2016, a Southwest Airlines flight traveling from New Orleans to Orlando diverted to Pensacola when an engine blew out mid-flight. No injuries were reported, but the plane sustained extensive damage similar to what happened Tuesday: the engine’s inlet was torn away revealing additional damage to the fuselage, wing, winglet and tail stabilizer.