Transportation

Davis man on fatal Southwest flight turned and saw horror behind him

Eric Zilbert, a 60-year-old Davis resident, found himself in a maelstrom 30,000 feet over Pennsylvania last week with 140-plus other confused passengers in a Southwest Airlines flight suddenly descending like a rock.
Eric Zilbert, a 60-year-old Davis resident, found himself in a maelstrom 30,000 feet over Pennsylvania last week with 140-plus other confused passengers in a Southwest Airlines flight suddenly descending like a rock. Courtesy of Eric Zilbert

First came a bang. Then a massive wind.

People gasped. His ears plugged.

“I’m told the plane canted 41 degrees,“ Eric Zilbert of Davis said. “But I didn’t notice. Just this sucking sound. Like being inside a balloon when it deflates.”

Zilbert, a 60-year-old state worker headed home from a New York business convention, found himself in a maelstrom 30,000 feet over Pennsylvania last week. He and 140-plus others were in a Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines jet that was suddenly descending steeply.

He would learn later that the engine on his side of the plane had blown, sending shrapnel into the fuselage, breaking a window and killing the woman in the row behind him.

For a few seconds, he was unaware of the tragedy. Oxygen masks fell from overhead, swinging on their rubber tubes. He turned to his 89-year-old mother in the seat next to him. “How is your heart?“ he asked. “She nodded, ‘Good.’”

They put their masks on. He had a chance to look around. That’s when he saw it, in the row behind him: the lower portion of a woman’s body from the waist down wedged into the window, her seat belt wrapped around her legs. The upper half of her body was outside.

Minutes later, when the air pressure had equalized, people were able to pull her in. She had no pulse.

The woman, Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old bank executive from Albuquerque, N.M., was the first person to die on a domestic flight in the United States since 2009.

During it all, Zilbert, a state Department of Education employee, said he felt calm. An aviation buff, adventurer and competitive sailor, Zilbert assessed the situation, or the little he knew of it.

The plane was dropping fast, but the pilot appeared to have the descent under control. “The plane is flying. There is no smoke. No flame. My assessment was for some reason this window failed. Ignorance is bliss.”

Zilbert found himself telling passengers around him: “We are going to make it down. Keep your masks on. Remain calm.”

He could see more commotion, however, ahead of him in the passenger cabin. He realized later that those people could view the shattered engine and knew the dire circumstances better than he did.

At one point, he tried to help push a plastic plate over the open window, but it blew out, he said, in two seconds.

On the ground in Philadelphia, he and others thanked the captain, Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy fighter pilot. She was calm and solicitous, he said.

Hear the pilot of Southwest flight 1380 communicate with air traffic control after one of the engines of the plane fails. The flight made an emergency landing in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Zilbert was left with a number of impressions.

For one, Riordan didn’t have to die. An engine fan blade problem had occurred on another plane, with less disastrous results, last year and should have been handled fully then by airlines and safety regulators, he said.

The airline has been grounding jets since last week for federally mandated inspections.

In its directive to the airline, the Federal Aviation Administration revealed its belief that this blown engine was not a freak incident.

“We evaluated all the relevant information and determined the unsafe condition described ... is likely to exist or develop in other products of the same type design.”

Zilbert was impressed with the FBI as a fast-acting, on-the-spot agency. Passengers in the plane were bused from the tarmac to a room inside the international terminal, where they were met by a row of FBI agents, all in suits, who set up tables to interview passengers. Zilbert said the FBI was making sure this was not a terrorist incident.

Southwest has appeared to be accommodating, he said. The airline sent him and other passengers a $5,000 check and a $1,000 flight voucher to cover any expenses the incident caused.

People keep asking him about it, mainly about how scary it was.

But Zilbert said he believes he is fine emotionally. His mom, too. Other family members who weren’t there are more rattled, though. The incident doesn’t just happen to you, he said he realized. “It happens to the people who care about you.”

He and his mom flew on two more flights that day to get back home to Davis. One of them proved to be a bit unnerving. He recognized it as the same type of jet, a Boeing 737-700, that suffered the engine failure.

He plans to fly again in June, probably on Southwest, he said.

“The way things are today, a full life involves flying, at least for me.”

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