Inside Southwest’s Fatal Midair Engine Failure

A passenger on a Southwest Airlines Co. flight died Tuesday after an engine broke apart at more than 30,000 feet, spraying metal pieces through the fuselage and forcing the crippled jet to make an emergency landing.

It was the first fatality from a U.S. airline accident since 2009.

Details of what happened to Flight 1380 and why metal pieces from its left engine were hurled into cabin—apparently rupturing a window behind the wing and fatally injuring a passenger seated nearby—weren’t expected until investigators examine the plane and interview the crew.

The passenger killed was Jennifer Riordan, who worked as a community-relations leader for Wells Fargo & Co. in New Mexico and was a married mother of two children, her sister-in-law, Marianne Riordan, said in an interview.

Witness reports, videos and preliminary information gathered by federal officials suggest the Boeing 737-700 suffered the most serious and rare type of engine problem, called an uncontained failure, in which rapidly spinning parts break off and end up penetrating the engine’s outer casing and front cover.

The accident happened at cruising altitude, according to people familiar with the sequence of events, after the jet left New York’s LaGuardia Airport for Dallas. The plane, carrying 144 passengers and five crew members, made an emergency landing at around 11:27 a.m. in Philadelphia.

Passengers described a chilling scene of chaos. Marty Martinez had just pulled out a book to read when he…

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