It was just before 10:30 a.m. on March 17, 2018, when Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 left the gate at New York’s La Guardia Airport. Some 15 minutes later the Boeing 737-700 took off for Dallas, Texas, carrying 144 passengers and five crew. What started out as an everyday flight soon became anything but routine. And for one woman, Jennifer Riordan, the events that unfolded a short while later would be utterly tragic.
A 43-year-old mother of two, Jennifer Riordan joined Wells Fargo Bank in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2008. Ten years later she had risen to become vice president of community relations with responsibility for around 1,000 staff. Riordan was on Flight 1380 as she was traveling back to her home city after a meeting in New York.
Riordan had always been a high-achiever. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from the University of New Mexico in 1999, she also gained an associate’s degree from Vermont’s Champlain College. Riordan’s academic achievements proved to be an ideal launching pad for her successful Wells Fargo career.
But let’s return to Flight 1380. As the Boeing’s engines powered up ready for takeoff, there may have been a few nervous fliers who felt a frisson of anxiety. But most were probably quite relaxed and ready for the relatively short flight to Dallas Love Field Airport.
The Boeing 737-700 thundered down the runway with pilot Tammie Jo Shults – of whom we’ll hear more later – at the controls. Shults was accompanied in the cockpit by First Officer Darren Ellisor, with three flight attendants looking after the passengers in the cabin. Southwest had been operating this particular plane since taking delivery of it in 2000.
After takeoff, the plane soon reached its cruising height of 32,000 feet. Everything seemed completely normal until about 20 minutes into the flight when suddenly there was a bang. Terrifyingly, the plane banked steeply to an angle of about 40 degrees. It then got back to the level and started to descend.
Fortunately, Captain Shults was equal to the emergency. No doubt her training and background as a former fighter pilot proved beneficial. In fact, Shults was one of the first women to fly fighters for the U.S. Navy, and one of the first to pilot an F/A-18 Hornet. In any event, Shults righted the 737 and held it steady.
And her remarkably composed exchanges with ground control, which have since been made public, have sealed her reputation as a woman of incredible nerve and courage. “Southwest 1380 has an engine fire. Descending,” she says, without a hint of emotion in her voice.
The traffic controller is a little less calm. “You are descending right now?” he says, his voice a little unsteady. “Yes, sir. We are single engine. Descending,” comes the monotone reply. One passenger, Alfred Tumlinson of Corpus Christi, Texas, was full of admiration for the pilot. “She has nerves of steel,” he told WPVI. “That lady, I applaud her. I’m going to send her a Christmas card… she was awesome.”
The onboard drama saw one of the plane’s two engines explode in what’s known as an uncontained explosion. That it was uncontained meant that bits of debris flew off the engine and struck the plane. And the fact that it was uncontained explained the dire consequences that came to pass.
One passenger, a retired nurse called Peggy Phillips, told ABC News that she’d heard “a big whoosh of air.” This was the result of a piece of debris from the engine crashing through a window just above the starboard wing of the plane. The window was completely destroyed and the fuselage on one side of the plane punctured.
Inevitably, this damage caused a rapid depressurization of the cabin since the plane was at an altitude of 32,500 feet when the engine blew. That of course meant that oxygen masks dropped down from the overhead lockers. Shults now quickly brought the plane down to an altitude of 10,000 feet where the air would be breathable.
But there were even more serious consequences arising from the shattered window. Jennifer Riordan was the passenger unlucky enough to be sitting next to it. And despite the fact that she was wearing her seatbelt, the force of the sudden depressurization dragged her partway out of the plane.
Terrifyingly, Riordan was now actually hanging out of the plane from the waist upwards. Next to Riordan was a teenage girl and one seat away was Holly Mack. Mack and the girl tried to pull Riordan back into the plane, but they were fighting a losing battle. “With the altitude and that air pressure at that time, we were not physically able to move her at all,” Mack explained to People. “The air pressure was still too much.”
Two male firefighters from Texas then pitched in, and between them they managed to haul Riordan back inside. Unfortunately, though, her injuries were extremely serious. One of the passengers who tried to revive her was the retired nurse Peggy Phillips. She kept at it for the next 20 minutes until the plane made its emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport.
But tragically, the fight to save Riordan’s life proved unsuccessful. People quoted Phillips as saying, “Imagine going through the window of an airplane at about 600 miles an hour and hitting either the fuselage or the wing with your body, with your face. I can probably tell you there was significant trauma to the body.”
Many people, including Albuquerque’s mayor Tim Keller, were quick to express their shock at the incident. “This is a tremendous and tragic loss for Jennifer’s family and many others throughout our city,” Keller said, before offering his condolences. “Her leadership and philanthropic efforts made this a better place every day and she will be terribly missed. We are holding Jennifer and her family in our thoughts.”
Of course, those most affected by the terrible catastrophe were Riordan’s husband Michael and her two children, both still of school age. “She and Mike wrote a love story unlike any other,” the family said in a statement. “Her beauty and love is evident through her children.” The statement also described Riordan as “the bedrock of our family.”
Flying on just one engine, Shults now took the damaged plane down towards Philadelphia International Airport. She and her first officer landed the plane smoothly although their speed was 190 mph, some 30 mph faster than normal. Speaking to CNN, one passenger said, “We decreased altitude from 8,000 to 5,000 and then when we finally landed it was relatively smooth, kind of a typical landing so the crew and the pilots did a fantastic job.”
The whole emergency had lasted about 22 minutes. As well as the single fatality of Jennifer Riordan, seven passengers sustained minor injuries. The US National Transportation Safety Board has said that early evidence points to metal fatigue in a fan blade as the cause of the engine explosion. And we can thank the cool-headed Tammie Jo Shults for the fact that the casualty toll from this incident was not far higher.