The first passenger fatality on a US airline in almost a decade seems unimaginable: Witnesses say 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan of New Mexico was partially sucked out of a Southwest Airlines plane Tuesday—she later died—when an engine exploded, smashing a window in her row. While rare, this kind of thing has actually happened before. Details and developments:
- Previous times: In one case, an Aloha Airlines flight attendant was sucked out of the plane when a hole opened in its roof in April 1988, reports the Washington Post. A year later, nine passengers were sucked from a United Airlines flight in “an explosive decompression,” according to the NTSB's report.
- Pressurization: Air inside a plane cabin is pressurized so people can breathe as the plane climbs into higher altitudes. When it meets outside air at a lower pressure because of a puncture, it creates suction with enough force to pull out a passenger, explains the Verge.
- A small hole is enough: As retired United Airlines captain Ross Aimer puts it to CBS News, "You have an incredible amount of pressure trying to rush out of that small opening—it could literally suck a larger person—they could become so small, they go through that window."
- Oxygen masks: These masks that drop down in emergencies allow passengers to continue breathing in cases of pressure loss. But as USA Today points out, several Southwest passengers did not put the masks over their noses as well as mouths as they are supposed to. Flight attendants always point this out in their safety instructions.
- The firefighter: Texas firefighter Andrew Needum, 34, is one of the passengers who helped pull victim Riordan back into the plane before she died. "I'm trained for emergency situations and that's just exactly what it was, and I felt moved to act," Needum said Thursday, per CNN. His wife, Stephanie, praised pilot Tammie Jo Shults for speaking individually to rattled passengers, per NBC News. "She's an amazing person."
- The culprit? Investigators are focusing on the blown engine's external cover, or cowling, reports the Wall Street Journal. One theory: A fan blade broke loose inside the engine, which in itself should not have been a catastrophic problem. But the loose blade, and the resulting vibrations it caused, could have caused the engine's cover (or parts of it) to become dislodged and smack into the plane.
More on the 22 minutes of terror here
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