PHILADELPHIA — 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.
Travelers said fellow passengers dragged the unidentified woman back in as the sudden decompression of the cabin pulled her part way through the opening.
The pilot of the plane, a 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.
"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."
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."
Another passenger, Eric Zilbert, an administrator with the California Education Department, said: "From her waist above, she was outside of the plane."
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.
"She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her," 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."
National Transportation Safety Board 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.
The NTSB sent a team of investigators to Philadelphia. Sumwalt said the engine will be taken apart and examined to understand what caused the failure.
Photos of the plane on the tarmac showed damage to at least one window and a chunk missing from the left engine, including part of the engine cover.
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.
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.
"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!'"
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."
After the plane landed, a woman was hospitalized in critical condition, and seven others were treated for minor injuries, authorities said.