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'Metal fatigue' found in engine that exploded during Southwest flight, killing 1

A Southwest Airlines jet bound for Dallas made an emergency landing Tuesday at a Philadelphia airport after an engine exploded, killing one person and injuring several others.

A preliminary examination of the blown engine showed evidence of "metal fatigue," according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

A federal investigator said one person was killed. Philadelphia's fire chief, Adam Thiel, said another person was taken to the hospital in critical condition. He said seven other passengers were treated for minor injuries, but none had to be taken to the hospital. No further information on those injured was released.

The explosion shattered a window closest to the engine and a woman sitting in the window seat was partially sucked out of the jet before passengers pulled her back in. The woman, Jennifer Riordan, a bank executive and community leader in Albuquerque, was rushed to a hospital in Philadelphia, where she was pronounced dead.

The Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office ruled on Wednesday that Riordan died from blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso and determined that her death was accidental.

Photographs show that part of the covering from the jet's left engine was ripped off.

In a late night news conference, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said one of the engine's fan blades was separated and missing, The Associated Press reported. The blade was separated at the point where it would come into the hub and there was evidence of metal fatigue, Sumwalt said.

The engine will be examined further to understand what caused the failure. The investigation is expected to take 12 to 15 months.

A Southwest Airlines spokesman released a statement that said in part: "We are in the process of gathering more information. Safety is always our top priority at Southwest Airlines, and we are working diligently to support our Customers and Crews at this time."

The Federal Aviation Administration said the flight from New York to Dallas made an emergency landing after the crew reported damage to one of the engines, as well as the fuselage and at least one window.

Thiel said that there was a fuel leak and a small fire when firefighters arrived, AP reported.

Southwest Airlines said there were 143 passengers and five crew members on board.

Matt Tranchin, a Dallas resident who thought he was going to die on the flight, called his wife on the plane phone and told her what to say about him to their unborn child, due in June.

"If this ends up being the opening scene to Final Destination 13, I'm going to be really salty," he quipped on Twitter.

"Everybody was crying and upset," passenger Amanda Bourman told the AP. "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!'"

Authorities said the explosion occurred about 20 minutes into the flight.

Passenger Marty Martinez of Dallas was interviewed Tuesday on Dallas radio station 96.7 FM “The Ticket.” He told listeners there was a loud explosion followed by a second explosion seconds later.

Martinez said he was on the right side of the plane in row 15 or 16, and the smashed window was on the left side of the plane on row 14 or 15. He said the woman sitting next to the shattered window was “limp” and nonresponsive.

The oxygen masks deployed in about five seconds, Martinez said.

Martinez said that to his recollection the pilot did not speak on the public address system during the entire ordeal. However, he did say that a flight crew frantically yelled out “prepare for landing” toward the end of the descent. He said many passengers scrambled to help the unresponsive passenger, who was bleeding profusely.

“A man came from the very front of the plane, I think row 7,” Martinez said. “He put himself between her and the window, to stop the sucking, so everyone could help her.”

Sharon Pelzel said waiting for her son Jason, 30, of Stamford, Conn., was agonizing. Pelzel was never near the phone when her son sent text messages, she said.

Jason was in the front of the plane and away from the mayhem. But he and his parents were certain he would be killed when the plane crashed, Pelzel said.

"Just before the landing he sent me his last text: We are almost there. Love you Mom," she said.

So many things could have gone wrong, Pelzel said. We thought that was going to be the last time we heard from him.

“No one wants to believe it’s going to be your last day," she added. "But that’s what we thought.”

When Jason sent another text about 30 minutes later from the airport, the relief was palpable, Sharon said.

“Even then, not until he was on a bus did a real sense of relief set in," she said.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 with the tail number N772SW is a Boeing 737-700 that was manufactured in 2000, according to the aviation website Planespotters.net.

FAA records also showed the plane being in service since 2000.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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