By The Dallas Morning News
Airline travel has become so safe that it is easy to forget that a tragedy can happen in an instant.
A stark reminder of that came Tuesday as a Southwest Airlines flight with 144 passengers and five crew members traveling from New York to Dallas made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after an engine malfunctioned. At least one person was confirmed dead, the first fatality in an accident involving a U.S. carrier since 2009.
From the safety of a computer screen in Dallas, it is hard for us to imagine the sheer terror that must have spread throughout the cabin in those uncertain moments. The flight had been in the air for about 30 minutes, just long enough for passengers to have comfortably settled in for a routine flight.
Then there was a loud explosion and oxygen masks deployed. Then there was another explosion, this apparently blowing out a window, according to one passenger. As the plane tilted and filled the cabin with white smoke, pilots took the plane into a steep dive to find oxygen. Some passengers were in tears, texting friends and family members, while others shouted encouragement. At moments like this, it becomes clear how fragile life can be.
And, as the plane approached Philadelphia, passengers braced for impact, fearing the worst. The mangled remains of the left engine on the Boeing 737-700 made clear just how lucky passengers and crew had been. Elated passengers tweeted their thanks and reflected on what they had just experienced.
“Everybody was crying and upset,” said one passenger. “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.’ ”
Amid this chaos, we should also remember that years of aircraft safety research and skilled pilots probably averted a catastrophic event and the loss of multiple lives. But it is for such a crisis that flight crews are trained to do more than serve drinks and light snacks, and pilots are able to respond instantly when seconds can make the difference between life and death.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation will eventually determine how this accident happened. But we already know a crucial element of the story: In a moment of crisis, everyday Americans stepped into the breach and likely averted a much worse disaster.
It’s easy to grow pessimistic if all we ever do is review the bad news of the day, and this story includes a very tragic outcome. But there is a moment of grace that should be noted. Sometimes a story brings news we should be grateful for as well. And here we are grateful for the courage that carried many lives to safety.