1 dead after Southwest Airlines jet with damaged engine makes emergency landing

A Southwest Airlines jet blows an engine at 32,000 feet and is hit by shrapnel that smashes a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. One person died and seven others were injured.

'Any of us could have sat in that seat,' says passenger after plane window damaged

News crew video shows serious damage to aircraft's port engine 0:58

A Southwest Airlines jet blew an engine at 32,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. One person died and seven others were injured.

The pilot of the twin-engine Boeing 737, bound from New York to Dallas with 149 people aboard, took it into a rapid descent and made an emergency landing in Philadelphia as passengers using oxygen masks that dropped from the ceiling said their prayers and braced for impact.

Travellers said fellow passengers dragged the unidentified woman back in as the sudden decompression of the cabin pulled her part way through the opening.

The dead woman was identified as Jennifer Riordan, a mother of two from Albuquerque, N.M., who worked as an executive for Wells Fargo bank in community relations. 

Marty Martinez, one of the passengers, told CBC's As It Happens that he knew they were in trouble after hearing a boom and seeing the oxygen masks deploy.

A photo posted to the account of Marty Martinez, left, shows passengers preparing for the emergency landing. (Marty Martinez/Facebook)

He said one of the windows exploded and "there was a lot of wind coming in."

The woman in the seat near the window was unconscious and she was "almost flailing out of the window."

He said "everyone was screaming" as people scrambled to try and help.

"I'll never forget the look on the flight attendant's face."

Martinez, who captured some of the chaos in a Facebook Live, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner he used the social media tool in a frantic bid to try and reach out to family and friends.

Martinez, who offered condolences to the family of the passenger who died, said he's still in a state of shock.

"Any of us could have sat in that seat," Martinez said. 

Another passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas, said a man in a cowboy hat rushed forward a few rows "to grab that lady to pull her back in. She was out of the plane. He couldn't do it by himself so another gentleman came over and helped to get her back in the plane and they got her."

In a recording of conversations between the cockpit and air traffic controllers, an unidentified crew member reported: "We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we're going to need to slow down a bit." She also said that there was a hole in the plane and that she was told "someone went out."

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.

Investigation launched

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Robert Sumwalt said one person died, but he gave no details. It was the first passenger fatality in an accident involving a U.S. airline since 2009.

Southwest said it is co-operating fully with the NTSB investigation.

Gary Kelly, the company's CEO, offered condolences to the loved ones of the deceased passenger.

A photo taken by a passenger on the Southwest flight shows some of the external damage. (Marty Martinez/Facebook)

"They are our immediate and primary concern, and we will do all that we can to support them during this difficult time and the difficult days ahead," he said in a video statement posted online late Tuesday afternoon, calling the death a "tragic loss."

The death marks Southwest's first in-flight fatality, Kelly said.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday evening, Kelly said he has reached out to the family of the passenger who died but has not yet made contact with them. 

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said there was a fuel leak in the engine when firefighters arrived and a small fire was quickly brought under control. After the plane landed, a woman was hospitalized in critical condition, and seven others were treated for minor injuries, authorities said.

Twelve other passengers were assessed, with seven of those being treated on the scene for minor injuries, local officials said.

It was too early to tell exactly what had happened, but that there was some damage to the plane's fuselage and wings, the local officials said.

Emergency personnel monitor the damaged engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which diverted to the Philadelphia International Airport this morning after the airline crew reported damage to one of the aircraft's engines, on a runway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S. April 17, 2018. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

The NTSB is sent a team to Philadelphia to investigate and begin an immediate inspection of the engine and fuselage. The engine will eventually be moved off site so investigators can do a detailed teardown.

Sumwalt told a news conference Tuesday evening that a preliminary investigation showed an engine fan blade was missing, having apparently broken off, and that there was metal fatigue where it normally would be attached.

"It is very unusual so we are taking this event extremely seriously," Sumwalt said. "This should not happen and we want to find out why it happened so that preventative measures can be put in place." He said the investigation could take 12 to 15 months to complete.

Sumwalt said part of the engine's covering was found in Bernville, Pa., about 113 kilometres from the Philadelphia airport.

Earlier in the day, the Philadelphia airport tweeted that Flight 1380 "landed safely at PHL and passengers are being brought into the terminal." No other details were given.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that the plane landed after the crew reported damage to one of the plane's engines, along with the fuselage and at least one window.

After the plane landed, Martinez posted photos of a damaged window near the engine.

News helicopter footage showed damage to the left engine and the tarmac covered with firefighting foam, although there were no signs of flames or smoke.

Tracking data from FlightAware.com shows the flight was heading west over New York's southern tier when it abruptly turned toward Philadelphia.

The explosion blew open a plane window, as detailed by a passenger (Reuters)

Southwest has about 700 planes, all of them 737s, including more than 500 737-700s like the one involved in Tuesday's emergency landing.

It is the world's largest operator of 737s. The Boeing 737 is the best-selling jetliner in the world and has a good safety record.

Investigators are likely to take apart the failed engine from Tuesday's plane and examine maintenance records as they try to piece together the cause of the explosion.

Meanwhile, the company that made the engine says it is helping investigators figure out what went wrong.

CFM International said in a statement Tuesday that it sent technical experts to help the NTSB. CFM is a joint venture of General Electric and France's Safran.

The company says that type of engine is installed on more than 6,700 planes and has flown more than 350 million hours since its introduction in 1997. The engine has an outstanding safety and reliability record, the company said.

The engine failure was reminiscent of a similar event on a Southwest Boeing 737-700 jet in August 2016 as it flew from New Orleans to Orlando, Fla.

Shrapnel from the engine left a hole 12 by 40 centimetres just above the wing. Passenger oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Pilots landed the plane safely in Pensacola, Fla.

Investigators with the NTSB said one of the engine's fan blades broke off from the hub during the flight. The broken edge of the blade showed crack lines consistent with metal fatigue.

With files from CBC News and Reuters