PHILADELPHIA — A Southwest Airlines jet apparently blew an engine at about 30,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window and damaged the fuselage Tuesday, killing a passenger and injuring seven others, authorities said.
The plane, a twin-engine Boeing 737 bound from New York to Dallas with 149 people aboard, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia just before noon as passengers breathing through oxygen masks that dropped from the ceiling said their prayers and braced for impact.
“I just remember holding my husband’s hand, and we just prayed and prayed and prayed,” said passenger Amanda Bourman, of New York. “And the thoughts that were going through my head of course were about my daughters, just wanting to see them again and give them a big hug so they wouldn’t grow up without parents.”
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt said one person was killed. It was the first passenger fatality in an accident involving a U.S. airline since 2009, Sumwalt said.
Seven other people were treated for minor injuries, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. He said there was a fuel leak in one of the engines when firefighters arrived and a small fire was quickly brought under control.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the crew reported damage to one of the engines, the fuselage and at least one window. The NTSB sent a team of investigators to Philadelphia.
Bourman said she was seated near the back and was asleep when she heard a loud noise and oxygen masks dropped. She said the plane was fairly quiet because everyone was wearing a mask, while some passengers were in tears and others shouted words of encouragement.
“Everybody was crying and upset,” she said. “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!’”
Passenger Marty Martinez did a brief Facebook Live posting while wearing an oxygen mask. He posted, “Something is wrong with our plane! It appears we are going down! Emergency landing!! Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas!!” After the plane landed, he posted photos of a broken window near the left engine.
Everyone started yelling to brace for impact when the plane started to land, Bourman said. She said everyone clapped and praised the pilot after he set the aircraft down.
Bourman said she saw emergency workers using a defibrillator to help a woman who was taken off the plane. Bourman said that she also saw a man in a cowboy hat rush to cover the broken window and that the man had a bandage around his arm after the plane landed.
Passengers did “some pretty amazing things under some pretty difficult circumstances,” Thiel said.
Tracking data from FlightAware.com shows Flight 1380 was heading west over Pennsylvania at about 32,200 feet (10 km) traveling 500 mph (800 kph) when it abruptly turned toward Philadelphia.
The last time a passenger died in an accident on a U.S. airliner was 2009, when 49 people on board and one on the ground were killed in the crash of a Continental Express plane near Buffalo, New York.
Southwest has about 700 planes, all of them 737s, including more than 500 737-700s like the one involved in Tuesday’s accident. It is the world’s largest operator of the 737. The 737 is the best-selling jetliner in the world and has a good safety record.
John Goglia, a former NTSB member, said investigators will take the engine apart to understand what happened and will look at its maintenance records.
“There’s a ring around the engine that’s meant to contain the engine pieces when this happens,” Goglia said. “In this case it didn’t. That’s going to be a big focal point for the NTSB — why didn’t (the ring) do its job?”
Goglia said the Boeing 737 is a safe plane but engine failures happen from time to time.
“We’re pushing the engines to produce as much power as possible,” he said. “We’re right on the edge. Sometimes they fail, and that’s why the containment ring is there.”
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, Florida. Shrapnel from the engine left a 5-by-16-inch hole just above the wing, and the oxygen masks dropped. The plane landed safely in Pensacola, Florida.
NTSB investigators said one of the engine’s fan blades broke off during the flight, apparently because of metal fatigue.
Before Tuesday, Southwest had never had an accident-related fatality of a passenger, although a boy died in 2006 when a Southwest jet skidded off a runway at Chicago’s Midway Airport, crashed through a fence and collided with the boy’s family’s car.