PHILADELPHIA (AP) — There was a loud boom, and the plane started shaking violently. Air whooshed through the cabin, and snow-like debris floated down the aisle as oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Some passengers wondered if they would ever hug their children again. At least one bought in-flight WiFi as the jet descended so he could say goodbye to his loved ones.
A blown engine on a Southwest Airlines jet Tuesday hurled shrapnel at the aircraft and led to the death of a passenger who was nearly sucked out a broken window.
The terrifying string of events on Flight 1380 brought out acts of bravery among the 149 passengers and crew members and drew across-the-board praise for the cool-headed pilot who safely guided the crippled Boeing 737 to an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
Alfred Tumlinson was traveling with his wife back to Corpus Christi, Texas, after attending a Texas Farm Bureau gala in New York City. About 30 minutes after the flight took off from La Guardia Airport, they heard a boom at about 32,000 feet over Pennsylvania, and the plane started losing altitude.
A second bang followed, said Marty Martinez, a 29-year-old digital marketing specialist heading home to Dallas. That was when he saw a window blown open about two rows ahead of him on the other side of the plane.
“It felt like the plane was freefalling. … Of course, everyone is like freaking out, everybody is crying. It was the scariest experience,” Martinez told CBS News.
Air rushed through the suddenly depressurized cabin, and “all this debris is flying in your face, down to the aisle of the plane, into the back of the plane,” Tumlinson said.
As those aboard started putting their masks on and helping others with theirs, passengers and crew members rushed to reach a woman who was being sucked out head-first through the opening. By at least one passenger’s account, half her body was outside the plane.
A man in a cowboy hat, rancher Tim McGinty of Hillsboro, Texas, tore his mask off and struggled to pull the woman in. Andrew Needum, a firefighter from Celina, Texas, came to help, and the two of them managed to drag her back inside.
“It seemed like two minutes and it seemed like two hours,” McGinty, told KXAS-TV after arriving in Dallas, a bandage on an arm scraped while trying to save the woman.
McGinty’s wife, Kristin McGinty, who was also on board, later told USA Today: “Some heroes wear capes, but mine wears a cowboy hat.”
When a flight attendant asked if anyone knew CPR, retired school nurse Peggy Phillips got out of her seatbelt, and she and the firefighter laid the grievously injured woman down. The two of them began administering CPR for about 20 minutes, until the plane landed.
Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old Wells Fargo bank executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico, didn’t survive.
“If you can possibly imagine going through the window of an airplane at about 600 mph and hitting either the fuselage or the wing with your body, with your face, then I think I can probably tell you there was significant trauma,” Phillips told ABC.
Inside the cockpit, pilot Tammie Jo Shults calmly communicated the severity of the situation.
“Injured passengers, OK, and is your airplane physically on fire?” an air traffic controller could be heard asking in a recording of the transmissions.
“No, it’s not on fire, but part of it is missing,” Shults said, pausing briefly. “They said there’s a hole and, uh, someone went out.”
The air traffic controller responded with seeming disbelief: “Um, I’m sorry, you said there was a hole and somebody went out?”
“Yes,” Shults said.
Some passengers took to social media to say their goodbyes to friends and family.
Matt Tranchin, who was heading home to Dallas, began texting his eight-months-pregnant wife and his parents that he loved them and telling them things he wanted his unborn son to know if the plane crashed and he didn’t make it.
Martinez made a Facebook Live post showing him and other passengers with oxygen masks on, the wind whipping in the background.
“I literally bought WiFi as the plane was going down because I wanted to be able to reach the people I loved … thinking these were my final moments on earth,” he wrote on Facebook.
As the plane descended steeply but steadily toward Philadelphia, the cabin was noisy from the open window, but the passengers were mostly quiet, maybe because they had their masks on, said passenger Amanda Bourman, of New York.
“Everybody was crying and upset. You had a few passengers that were very strong and they kept yelling to people, you know, ‘It’s OK! We’re going to do this!'” Bourman said. “I just remember holding my husband’s hand, and we just prayed and prayed and prayed.”
For Kristopher Johnson, a single thought flooded his mind: his wife and 13-month-old son Jakob.
“I thought it was the end of my life,” Johnson, an assistant principal at East Montana Middle School in El Paso, Texas, told People.com. “I thought I’d never be able to see my son or my wife or my family again. That was the first thing that rushed through my head.”
Kathy Farnan, 77-year-old from Santa Fe, New Mexico, said people seated near her in the front, away from the damage, remained relatively calm. “There was no panic. Everybody was good. I think it was too early in the morning. People are running on half asleep,” she said.
Eric Zilbert, an administrator with the California Education Department, said even the children “did very well.”
Passengers praised Shults for her professionalism during emergency. Shults, a Navy veteran and one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. military, was at the controls when the jet landed, according to her husband, Dean Shults.
She got a round of applause from the passengers after putting the plane down safely. She walked through the aisle and talked with passengers to make sure they were OK afterward.
“She has nerves of steel, that lady,” Tumlinson said. “I’m going to send her a Christmas card, I’m going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”