Several passengers are being hailed as heroes following an engine explosion on a Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines flight on Tuesday. But witnesses say the flight attendants on the ill-fated plane also went above and beyond to help passengers — even as they feared for their own lives.
“Without a doubt in my mind, those individuals are heroes. I don’t use the word ‘hero’ loosely,” Kristopher Johnson, a 38-year-old father from El Paso, Texas, tells PEOPLE of the crew members. “They kept their calm and composure and said, ‘Everybody, we’re gonna get through this.’ The medical professionals onboard tended to the passenger that was injured, but the rest of us only had the flight attendants.”
Flight 1380 from New York City made an emergency landing in Philadelphia that morning after one of the engines exploded and sent a piece of shrapnel flying into the aircraft. The plane suddenly depressurized and descended from more than 30,000 feet to about 10,000 feet in about five minutes, CNN reports. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) believes metal fatigue on the 18-year-old Boeing 737 led to one of the engine’s blade breaking mid-flight, sending shrapnel into the plane’s fuselage and breaking the window next to mother of two, Jennifer Riordan, who died after being partially sucked through the window.
Johnson says there was “chaos” after the abrupt explosion. And another passenger, a New Jersey resident who asked to remain anonymous, says the crew members were sure to put the passengers first.
“The flight attendants went into complete action mode, running up and down the aisle, helping people put on their masks, making sure the oxygen was flowing before they started putting on their own masks,” the anonymous passenger tells PEOPLE.
“The flight attendants were saying, ‘Heads down, brace position, don’t look up!’ It was very instructive on what to do and preparing for the worst, you don’t know what’s going to happen. ”
As the situation unfolded, Riordan, a bank executive from New Mexico, was partially sucked through a window broken by shrapnel. Although other passengers were able to pull her back into the aircraft, witnesses reported that she went into cardiac arrest. Firefighter Andrew Needhum and a fellow passenger Tim McGinty helped pull Riordan back into the plane. Meanwhile, the anonymous passenger says, a flight attendant rushed to get a defibrillator from the front of the plane to help the woman.
According to Johnson, it was the crew who kept the more than 135 passengers calm as pilot Tammie Jo Shults landed the aircraft safely.
“They weren’t screaming, they weren’t crying uncontrollably,” Johnson says, noting that one flight attendant became emotional. “I heard in her voice when she was talking, she was visibly shaking but still made the announcements. Flight attendants were saying, ‘Lower your head’ and ‘brace, brace.’ Then we landed.”
Upon reached ground, shaken passengers immediately contacted their loved ones and Riordan was taken to a local hospital where she later passed away. Riordan died from blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso, Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow said Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
- REPORTING by JASON HAHN and DIANE HERBST