It was meant to be a day like any other as passengers boarded a Southwest flight bound for Dallas. Unfortunately, the plane experienced engine trouble, which resulted in an explosion mid-flight.
When the explosion occurred, a piece of shrapnel shattered a cabin window, causing a woman to be partially sucked out. Oxygen masks were released, and fellow passengers scrambled to pull the woman back to safety. Texas firefighter Andrew Needum was among these passengers. He had been flying with his wife, two young children, and parents. Needum heard the commotion, and his wife Stephanie gave him a nod to let him know they were okay and that he could go help.
Passenger Cassie Adams described the moment that “two brave men” responded to the woman and pulled her back in. According to Adams, one of the men stood in front of the open window so that no one else would be injured, while the other performed CPR. Unfortunately, the woman had hit her head during the ordeal, and she was pronounced dead on impact.
The plane dropped from 32,500 feet at a rate of over 3,000 feet per minute. Passengers watched in horror as the woman was pulled back into the plane, and that is when they noticed that the plane had begun to quickly descend. They grabbed onto the oxygen masks and braced for impact, sobbing and praying for a miracle.
Passenger Amanda Bourman of New York described the ordeal, saying, “I just remember holding my husband’s hand, and we just prayed and prayed and prayed.”
“There was momentary chaos,” said passenger Matt Tranchin. “Everyone kind of descended on where this hole was. As passengers, we weren’t sure if they were trying to cover up the hole, but the plane smelled like smoke. There was ash coming through the ventilation system. We started dropping. Some of the crew couldn’t hold back their horror, and some were crying as they looked out through the open window onto the engine.”
Fortunately, the plane leveled out at around 10,000 feet, and pilots made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. Upon landing, several passengers were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.
Tranchin also described the horror as passengers noticed a significant amount of blood. “To make matters worse, there really wasn’t any instruction. There was a lot of just panic and confusion. I will say the pilot did an incredible job through it all. We landed, and it was as soft as you would think a landing like that could even be. We were incredibly thrilled that we had the pilot that we had, but it was sheer panic throughout the entire experience.”
Remembering Jennifer Riordan
The woman, New Mexico bank executive Jennifer Riordan, was remembered by her family as a dedicated mother of two whose “vibrancy, passion, and love infused our community and reached across our country.”
The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce held a moment of silence in honor of Riordan. Hakim Bellamy, former poet laureate and slam poetry champion, express his condolences via Twitter, calling Riordan a friend and saying simply, “it doesn’t seem fair.”
Mayor Richard Berry took to Twitter to relay his condolences as well. “No words can express the depth of our sadness at the passing of Jennifer Riordan,” he tweeted. “Maria and I send our deepest condolences to the Riordan family. Today, our community lost a great leader and a beautiful person.”
Rebecca Avitia, Executive Director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, described the loss as a dark, heavy emptiness. “I’ve heard of references in Mesoamerican lore to a female spirit who appeared to people in need like a blazing sun with wings,” wrote Avitia in an online post. “In Albuquerque, that was Jennifer Riordan. Jennifer, I already miss you.”
Investigation and Response
A preliminary examination of the jet engine showed evidence of metal fatigue, causing one of the engine’s fan blades to separate from the point where it jointed the rotating hub before bursting through containment measures and shooting debris into the body of the aircraft. High-resolution photographs of the breaking point were sent to laboratories for analysis.
Photos of the plane showed a missing window, as well as a portion of the left engine. “There is a ring around the engine that is meant to contain the engine pieces when this happens,” said former NTSB member John Goglia. “In this case, it didn’t. That’s going to be a big focal point for the NTSB – why didn’t it do its job?”
At a press conference following the tragedy, Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly expressed his gratitude that no one else had been seriously injured during the explosion, though he was saddened by Riordan’s tragic death. “This is a sad day, and our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of the deceased customer,” he said.
He described the flight’s captain as “very experienced,” having been with the company since 1994 and serving as captain for “well over a decade.” Kelly also took a moment to commend the crew for their quick action, stating that they “did their jobs superbly.”
Investigation Reveals New Insight
In 2016, a Southwest flight suffered a similar fate as an engine blew up mid-flight. The flight, on route from New Orleans to Orlando, made an emergency landing after one of the engines failed. A woman traveling with her husband and three children described the terrifying ordeal, stating that the engine was right outside her window. “It was just a big explosion,” she said. “There was some smoke, and then nothing. I was parts flapping in the wind.”
Thankfully, none of the 99 passengers aboard that flight had been injured, and the plane diverted to Pensacola when the crew declared an emergency. However, an investigation launched, after which the engine manufacturer submitted recommendations for Southwest to conduct ultrasonic inspections of certain fan blades within 12 months.
Last year, Southwest responded, opposing those recommendations and requesting more time to conduct inspections. Thus far, the Federal Aviation Administration has not required airlines to conduct the extra inspections. However, they have committed themselves to doing so following the recent tragedy.