PHILADELPHIA - An engine on a Southwest Airlines flight with 149 people aboard exploded in mid-air on Tuesday, killing one passenger and nearly sucking another out of a window that was shattered by shrapnel, according to airline and federal authorities and witness and media accounts.
The plane, a Boeing 737 which was bound to Dallas from New York, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
The death of 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan on Flight 1380 was the first in a US commercial aviation accident since 2009, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) statistics.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, at a news conference at the Philadelphia airport, said a preliminary investigation showed that an engine fan blade was missing, having apparently broken off, and that there was metal fatigue where it normally would be attached.
Sumwalt said part of the engine's covering, called a cowlling, was found in Bernville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles from the Philadelphia airport.
Flight 1380 took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport at around 10:27 a.m. and was diverted to Philadelphia just under an hour later, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com. Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said the flight landed at Philadelphia International at around 11:20 a.m.
The engine on the plane's left side threw off shrapnel when it blew apart, shattering a window and causing rapid cabin depressurization that nearly pulled out a female passenger, according to witness accounts and local news media reports.
"We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we're going to need to slow down a bit," the plane's captain, Tammy Jo Shults, told air traffic controllers in audio from the cockpit released on NBC News.
Asked by a controller if the jet was on fire, Shults said it was not, but added, "They said there is a hole and someone went out."
"A woman was partially, was drawn out of the plane and pulled back in by other passengers," Todd Bauer, whose daughter was on the flight, told the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia.
At an earlier news briefing in Washington, Sumwalt said that one person had been killed, but did not describe the circumstances.
Riordan was a Wells Fargo banking executive and well-known community volunteer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, according to a Wells Fargo official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she was unsure whether all of Riordan's family had been notified of her death.
Riordan was on the way back from a New York business trip, where she had sent a tweet on Monday showing the view from her hotel in Midtown Manhattan with the caption: "Great business stay." Her Facebook page shows she was married with two children.
The plane, which was bound for Dallas Love Field, had been inspected as recently as Sunday, according to Southwest's Kelly, who confirmed that Tuesday's fatality was the first of its kind in the carrier's 51-year history.
At 11:18 a.m., passenger Marty Martinez posted on Facebook a live video of himself on the plane, wearing a breathing mask, as the plane descended. More than an hour later, at 12:27 p.m., Martinez posted pictures of a blown-out window and the badly damaged engine.
"The entire Southwest Airlines Family is devastated and extends its deepest, heartfelt sympathy to the customers, employees, family members and loved ones affected by this tragic event," Southwest said in a statement.
There were 144 passengers and five crew members aboard the flight, Sumwalt said.
One passenger was taken to a hospital in critical condition and seven people were treated for minor injuries at the scene, Philadelphia Fire Department spokeswoman Kathy Matheson said. Matheson could not confirm how the passenger in critical condition sustained her injuries.
Sumwalt said the NTSB believes parts came off the engine, but it has not determined if it was an "uncontained engine failure."
"There are protection rings around the engine to keep shrapnel from coming out. Even though we believe that there were parts coming out of this engine, it may not have been in that section of the engine that technically would qualify this as an uncontained engine failure," he said.
"We don't think there was a fire at all," he told the media briefing before departing for Philadelphia.
He said the NTSB sees about three or four uncontained engine failures a year, including non-US carriers.
"EVERYBODY WAS GOING CRAZY"
Flight 1380 was diverted to Philadelphia for an emergency landing after crew members reported damage to an engine, the fuselage and at least one window, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
"Everybody was going crazy, and yelling and screaming," passenger Martinez told CNN.
Martinez said objects flew out of the hole where the window had exploded, and "passengers right next to her were holding onto (the woman being pulled out). And, meanwhile, there was blood all over this man's hands. He was tending to her."
Television images showed that most of the outer casing around the left engine of the Boeing Co 737-700 ripped away and a window near the engine on the plane's left side was missing.
"All of a sudden, we heard this loud bang, rattling, it felt like one of the engines went out. The oxygen masks dropped," passenger Kristopher Johnson told CNN. "It just shredded the left-side engine completely. ... It was scary."
Southwest shares fell more than 3 per cent after the NTSB reported the fatality, before closing down 1.1 per cent at $54.27 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The plane's engines are made by CFM International, a French-US venture co-owned by Safran and General Electric, which was not immediately available for comment.
MOST RELIABLE ENGINES
Boeing in a statement extended its condolences to the family of the woman killed, and said it is "providing assistance at the request and under the direction" of the NTSB.
The Boeing 737 is the world's most-sold aircraft and its engines are the most widely used in the aircraft industry and are reported to be among the most reliable.
Any design issues with the long-established CFM56 engine could have repercussions for fleets worldwide. But given that thousands of the engines are already in use globally, industry experts say the focus of the investigation is more likely to fall on one-off production or maintenance issues, though it is too early to say what caused the explosion.
The accident comes as CFM wrestles with production delays for a new engine model, designed for the latest generation of Boeing and Airbus narrowbody jets.