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Southwest plane engine explodes, killing passenger mid-air

By LIAM STACK and MATT STEVENS

One person was killed and seven others suffered minor injuries on a Southwest Airlines flight from New York to Dallas when an engine exploded in midair Tuesday, shattering a window that passengers said partially sucked a woman out of the aircraft.

The explosion, which officials said happened about 20 minutes into the flight, prompted a desperate effort among flight attendants and passengers to save the woman.

“I think, like most passengers, I thought I was going to die,” Matt Tranchin, 34, said.

The episode was the first time a passenger had died in an accident on a United States airline since 2009, The Associated Press said.

The two-engine plane, Flight 1380, which made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport at about 11:20 a.m. Eastern time, quickly lost altitude after the explosion and violently depressurized after shrapnel from the explosion burst through the window, said Max Kraidelman, 20, a college student who was on the flight.

Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news conference late Tuesday that multiple alerts sounded in the cockpit.

Soon after the explosion, a woman near the window was partially sucked out, Kraidelman said.

“The top half of her torso was out the window,” he said. “There was a lot of blood because she was hit by some of the shrapnel coming off the engine after it exploded.”

Kraidelman said passengers and flight attendants struggled “to drag her back into the aircraft.” When they did, she was unconscious and seriously injured, and flight attendants and passengers tried to revive her. Upon seeing the scene, one flight attendant began to cry, Tranchin said.

“They were doing CPR on her and using the defibrillator while we were landing,” Kraidelman said. “They were working on her while everyone else had their oxygen mask on.”

Tranchin said that one of the passengers helping had at one point placed his lower back up against the opening in the plane, in an apparent effort to help with the compression. The man did this for the next 20 minutes, Tranchin said, adding that the man later told him that the pressure at his back had been extreme.

In the meantime, passengers wept and screamed for roughly 10 or 15 minutes, oxygen masks strapped to their faces, Kraidelman said.

Tranchin said he spent those precious minutes texting goodbyes to people important in his life.

“It’s a wild experience,” he said. “It’s not a couple minutes of freaking out and frantically saying goodbye; it’s 25 minutes of sustained fear that this was the end.”

“What do you say to your pregnant wife and your parents in your final moments?” he added. “That’s what I was trying to figure out.”

Tranchin said he wanted his wife to tell his son how important it is to follow his dreams; he wanted to tell her to find love again.

About two minutes before the plane landed, passengers got cellphone reception, so he called his wife and told her they were about to make an emergency landing.

As the craft descended, “it was shaking, it was vibrating, it was tilting to one side,” Kraidelman said.

Tranchin said passengers were repeatedly told to “brace for impact.”

“At that point,” Tranchin said, “I thought I had a better than 50-50 chance of surviving.”

“You can see the ground, we’re level,” he continued. “It’s crash landing, but it’s doable.”

That the landing ended up being smooth was “nothing short of extraordinary,” he said.

Sumwalt said there were two pilots on the plane. He noted that pilots are trained often, and having listened to the air-traffic control communications from Tuesday, he said the pair seemed to have done “an excellent job.”

“As a fellow airline pilot,” he said, “my hat’s certainly off to them.”

The pilot who safely landed the plane was identified as Tammy Jo Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy. The airline did not release her name, but passengers confirmed Shults' name on social media and her mother-in-law told the Washington Post she was the pilot.

While federal transportation officials did not release the name of the woman who died, on Tuesday night, an official with the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, the mayor of Albuquerque and a spokesman for Wells Fargo identified the woman who died as Jennifer Riordan, of Albuquerque.

Colleagues and friends said she was a community relations leader with Wells Fargo. They also said she was a wife and mother of two who had been a scholarship winner at the University of New Mexico and had served on a school board.

“Today, Albuquerque lost a thoughtful leader who has long been part of the fabric of our community,” the mayor, Tim Keller, said. “Her leadership and philanthropic efforts made this a better place every day and she will be terribly missed.”

Gary C. Kelly, the chief executive of Southwest Airlines, said in a video posted to YouTube, “This is a sad day, and on behalf of the entire Southwest family I want to extend my deepest sympathies for the family and the loved ones of our deceased customer.”

The flight, which was on its way from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field, was a Boeing 737 with 144 passengers and five Southwest employees on board, officials said.

The crew initially reported that they had an engine fire, Sumwalt said. They later clarified that there was no fire, but said that the plane was operating with a single engine – and that parts of it were missing.

Sumwalt said an engine cowling was later discovered in Bernville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Once the plane was on the ground, investigators discovered that a fan blade was missing from the plane’s operating engine. It appeared to have been separated at what Sumwalt called “the hub.”

“Our preliminary examination of this was that there’s evidence of metal fatigue where the blade separated,” he said.

Sumwalt said he had spoken with Kelly, who he said told him that Southwest Airlines would begin “enhanced inspection procedures” on their entire fleet.

“We are taking this event very seriously,” Sumwalt said. “This should not happen.”

A similar episode occurred in August 2016 when a Southwest Airlines flight headed to Orlando, Florida, made an emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida, because of engine failure, according to The Associated Press. Although some photos had made it appear as if the engine had blown apart, the airline later said there had been no explosion. That episode also involved a Boeing 737.

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