Southwest Flight 1380 was above southeastern Pennsylvania, about 20 minutes into its journey, when it happened.
A fan blade, spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute in the engine beneath the aircraft’s left wing, broke loose.
The titanium alloy blade careened through the turbine engine and protective cowling with devastating force. The cowling came apart and plummeted toward Blue Marsh Lake, some 5 miles below.
Within seconds, a piece of the engine hurtled into a window in Row 14, where Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old woman making her way home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sitting. The window popped out of the fuselage entirely, partially sucking Riordan into the turbulent, arctic air outside.
“Her arms and her body were sucked … in that direction, from my vantage point,” said passenger Marty Martinez, who was in Row 16. “So you see people, from the back of the seat, holding onto her, trying to keep her contained.”
The plane, bound for Dallas, had left New York’s LaGuardia Airport at 10:27 a.m. Tuesday. The Rev. Timothy Bourman, sitting with his wife near the back, had just finished a Sudoku puzzle when he heard the commotion and saw items flying out Riordan’s window. The plane dropped suddenly. He grabbed his wife’s hand.
“I just said, ‘Jesus … send your angels,'” he recalled.
Oxygen masks fell, dangling, from the ceiling. In their panic, many passengers donned them incorrectly. Photos show their noses protruding above the yellow cups that funnel vital oxygen to passengers’ lungs when an airplane cabin depressurizes. Other passengers ignored the masks and rushed to Riordan’s aid.
The pilot tried to calm the cabin, but amid the screams, the engine noise and the whirling outside air, passengers struggled to hear, said Amy Serafini, who was in Row 15. The plane rolled sharply, 41 degrees to the left, before pilots quickly righted the aircraft.
‘Jesus loves you girls’
For the next 22 minutes, the 144 passengers and five crew members wondered if this was the end. Flight attendants, normally calm presences when a plane hits rocky air, broke down themselves, some of them crying.
“Everybody was going crazy, and yelling and screaming,” Martinez said. “We knew that we were in a really bad place. … I’m like, ‘We’re probably not going to make it.'”
Martinez’s colleague sat next to him, fixed on his phone. When Martinez looked closer, he noticed his colleague was sending a final goodbye to his wife and unborn son. Martinez was compelled to do the same. But how? He couldn’t call or text, he realized, so he began scrambling to access the onboard Wi-Fi so he could say his own farewells.
“So I Facebook Live’d the whole thing, and was then sending out messages to my mom, my dad, my sister — all my loved ones back home,” he said. “It was absolutely a terrifying experience.”
Bourman, the pastor, also thought of his family, namely his three daughters. He wanted to send them a note “from the grave,” something to let them know their parents always loved them.
“Never lose your faith in God. Jesus loves you girls,” the message read.
Bourman never put on his oxygen mask. A fellow passenger commented on his measured demeanor, but the reverend later said he was terrified.
‘I felt a calling’
Several rows in front of Bourman, Riordan’s fellow passengers struggled to pull her back from the hole in the fuselage.
Black cowboy hats are often worn by villains in old movie Westerns, but in this case a hero wore one. Tim McGinty, who works in farm and ranch real estate, rushed to Row 14.
“Somebody screamed, and we realized what had happened when the window went out and so I tried and tried and couldn’t — I just couldn’t — and then Andrew came over just trying to get her back in,” he said.
That was Andrew Needum, a Celina, Texas, firefighter who was flying with five family members when he heard a “loud pop.” After helping his wife, parents and children in Row 8 with their oxygen masks, he looked to his wife for permission to help the folks behind him. She silently granted it.
“God created a servant heart in me, and I felt a calling to get up and do something,” he would say days later.
McGinty and Needum got Riordan back into the plane, where Needum and another passenger, retired nurse Peggy Phillips, began performing CPR.
“We were still doing CPR when the plane landed,” the former nurse said. “We made every effort that we could possibly make to save this woman’s life.”
Passengers tried to block the hole with jackets and other items, but the objects were swiftly sucked out into the wild blue yonder.
“It didn’t feel like it was trying to pull me out. It just felt like whenever I stuck anything out it would just slam me back,” McGinty said, describing the force of the air rushing out of the plane.
Many on the flight told media outlets that a fellow passenger pressed his lower back into the hole in an attempt to slow the cabin’s depressurization. It’s not clear exactly who that was, but Bourman told CNN that a man in a “big brim hat” was a true hero of the episode.
“He was pulling somebody in and making sure nobody else was going to get pulled out and hurt,” the reverend said.
‘Relatively smooth’ landing
As passengers prayed and pondered their last words to loved ones, Captain Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor had the unenviable duty of landing the big injured bird safely on the ground. They’d already pulled the Boeing 737 out of a frightening descent — that was the easy part — but now they had to get the twin-engine jet down to breathing altitude, about 10,000 feet.
Using the speed brakes atop the wings, the pilots dropped from about 30,000 feet to 13,000 feet in five minutes — a rate of more than a half mile per minute. Though passengers described a precipitous descent it was actually pretty typical, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which explained that an emergency descent “happens in a fairly rapid manner.”
One of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, Shults sounded unflappable as she told air traffic control to direct her to the nearest airport. A runway would be cleared in Philadelphia, she was told.
Exhibiting the same calm with which one might order a sandwich at a deli counter, she asked the tower if medical units could meet the plane on the tarmac.
“Injured passengers, OK, and is your airplane physically on fire?” the air traffic controller asked.
“No, it’s not on fire, but part of it is missing. They said there’s a hole and that someone went out,” Shults responded.
The air traffic controller seemed taken aback but quickly assured Shults he would handle it.
“Um, I’m sorry, you said there was a hole and somebody went out?” he asked. “Southwest 1380, it doesn’t matter — we will work it out there.”
Shults’ steady demeanor served her well as she approached the runway at Philadelphia International Airport with one remaining engine. The pilots brought it down at roughly 190 mph, a good deal faster than the typical 155 mph at which pilots usually land 737s.
“It definitely was a stable landing,” Kristopher Johnson told CNN. “When we finally landed it was relatively smooth. Kind of a typical landing.”
The pilots brought the plane to a stop on the tarmac, where it was met by emergency vehicles.
Passengers were jubilant to reach the ground safely and gave each other high fives and hugs. The pilots emerged from the cockpit and joined in the celebration.
“We became best friends with everybody on the plane,” said Bourman, the pastor.
The woman in Row 14
Casting a pall over the celebrations was the woman in Row 14. Still bloody and unconscious, Riordan was rushed to an area hospital, where doctors declared her dead of blunt impact trauma to the head, neck and torso.
Her employer, Wells Fargo, where she had led the bank’s volunteer services since 2008, mourned the “well-known leader who was loved and respected.”
Passengers praised the pilots for guiding the plane to safety in a crisis situation. But Shults and Ellisor brushed off the hero talk.
“We all feel we were simply doing our jobs,” the pilots said in a statement. “Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss.”
It was the first fatal accident involving a US-based passenger airline since 2009. But if not for the heroism on display in the cabin and the cockpit, it might have been worse.