Editor’s Note: On April 17, 2018, Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old vice president of community relations for Wells Fargo bank and mother of two children from Albuquerque, N.M., was pulled halfway out of an airplane window on Southwest Flight 1380 after the windows was hit by shrapnel from a failed engine just 20 minutes into the flight.
The seatbelt around her waist kept her from being completely sucked away, and it was through heroic efforts by a handful of brave passengers risking their own lives that Jennifer was pulled back into the plane so resuscitation attempts could begin.
What follows is the firsthand account from recently-certified paramedic and firefighter from Texas, Andrew Needum, who was one of the passengers who sprang into action that fateful day.
A Rescuer’s Story
Destination New York City—the place of dreams and big money businesses. It almost has a mythical persona about it, as it’s pictured in so many movies and TV shows. It’s a destination that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
This was the case for us. My wife Stephanie and I had discussed on numerous occasions that we would love to go to NYC and experience one of the largest cities in the world. We would have loved to have gone during Christmastime, but due to school and a limited travel budget we realized that this wouldn’t be possible.
Since I was wrapping up paramedic school, we decided that, as a reward for our family and the sacrifices endured while Dad was in school, that we needed a getaway.
Stephanie began to look at flights and quickly realized that we had enough points, so the next item in line was lodging. She called her aunt who was living in NYC at the time, and she graciously agreed to have us stay at her place in Upper Manhattan.
Two years prior, my sister and I had given our mom a jar of money for Christmas and on the jar was written “NYC trip.” At 61 and 63 years of age, my mom and dad had always dreamed of going to New York but never had the opportunity to go.
As soon as we found out that we were going, I ran over to my parents’ house and asked my dad if they’d like to join us. Before my dad even had the opportunity to ask my mom, he’d said “yes.”
The dates just so happened to line up with their 39th wedding anniversary. The flights were booked, and on April 11, 2018, our “destination NYC” vacation was underway.
Obtaining National Registry paramedic certification was no easy task for me. I equate it to learning a foreign language: At the end of the course you’re expected to be fluent in two languages; one where you can communicate at the level of your patient, and the other at the level of an ED physician.
Before entering medic school, I’d always worked two jobs. But, from what I’d heard from others, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to work and go to school. Thankfully, my family also understood the time and dedication required to make it through the program, along with the financial restraints that would come along with it.
There were many nights that I had to sacrifice a sporting event with the kids or a family outing for book time due to a test that was coming up that week. My wife did an amazing job as we, together with our children, endured the 14 months of medic school.
So, our family trip to New York City just one month after I received my paramedic certification wasn’t just supposed to be a great way to relax and prepare myself for my new role as a paramedic, but to also recognize and reward my family for all the love and support they gave to me throughout the 14-month program.
We spent a busy seven days and six nights taking in the Big Apple, enjoying the city and other things like the Natural History Museum, attending the Broadway production of Frozen, Central Park, the American Girl Doll store, Lego store, the Plaza Hotel, Trump Tower, a Yankees game, Time Square, Top of the Rock, fire stations, the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the New York City Fire Museum, Fraunces Tavern, the Statue of Liberty, the Intrepid Sea and Space Museum, and enjoying all the great food you might imagine.
The morning of April 17, 2018, began a bit more hectic than usual, as we prepared to depart from our trip to LaGuardia Airport. We arrived in plenty of time to check our luggage and made our way up to, and eventually through, TSA security. The lines were longer than usual due to the implementation of a new TSA rule requiring all food items be removed from bags.
My parents passed through security before the rest of us and moved ahead to the terminal as our plane was in the boarding process. But one of our bags was pulled to the side because we forgot that we had placed some candy, from a legendry NYC candy store, in the bottom of the luggage.
We rushed down to meet up with my parents who were now in line to board the plane. They were in the first boarding group.
I knew we’d be boarding soon because we were going to board with family boarding. I looked to my right and saw a mother traveling with a young child, so I began to make small talk with her, inquiring as to how old her baby was and so forth.
When family boarding was called, we made our way on to the aircraft to find my parents, who had saved us seats, in Rows 7 and 8. The kids were excited to see that they had seats next to the window, and I was just as excited to see that I would be in the aisle seat with the ability be a bit more relaxed for the flight back home.
As we settled into our seats for the flight back home, the mother and young child sat down directly behind my wife in Row 8.
As the plane pushed back from the gate, flight attendants began their preflight process with the informational session going over inflight safety and the instructions required for a safe flight.
We were now officially set for departure.
We made our way to the runway and then the engines roared, the wheels began to turn, we began to lift off the ground, and our NYC vacation had already begun to fade away, like the skyline, as we began our journey back to Texas.
‘Screams of Sheer Terror’
As the plane began the ascent to the required altitude, my dad had taken out a piece of paper and began to write down all the places we’d gone over the past five days. I reached down to grab the book that I’d purchased from the New York City Fire Museum, Report from Engine Co. 82.
As I began to read, the flight attendants made their way down the aisle for drink orders. It was then that the most horrific sound came from the left side of the aircraft—a sound that was very different from anything my ears had ever heard, one that is still to this day nearly impossible and extremely difficult to describe, but I can still feel resonating deep inside my body.
From this point on, things began to unfold very quickly; so quickly that I barely had time to process what was actually occurring.
There were screams of sheer terror echoing throughout the cabin. I took a moment to look over my left shoulder and see if I could begin to process what was actually going on.
Suddenly, the oxygen mask that the flight attendants were just instructing us how to use deployed right in front of me. I never in my wildest dreams believed that I would ever be in a situation where it would be needed.
I didn’t want to hesitate, so I quickly placed the mask on my face. My heart was racing, and it felt like my stomach was somewhere in my neck region due to the plane’s violent shaking and rapid decent.
I looked to my right and saw my Dad masked up and assisting my son Colten with his mask. I locked eyes with my son, he stared back with a look of sheer terror. I began to see tears welling up in his eyes.
Across the aisle to my left, I could see that my wife had safely secured her mask and it appeared that my mother had as well.
As I began to calm myself down by slowing my breathing, I began to recall the training that I’d learned throughout my career as a firefighter.
As firefighters, we train extensively on situations where stressful moments might arise, such as blacked out conditions, being trapped, lost, disoriented, and having to activate a mayday while wearing our SCBAs.
I told myself then, just like in training, to take calm, slow deep breaths. I was mentally instructing myself to do this and rely on muscle memory as I began to scan the area with my eyes.
I looked behind my wife to find the young mother I saw while entering the plane having some difficulties securing her mask, because her hands were full having to secure her daughter on her lap.
I immediately removed my mask, unbuckled my seatbelt, and stood to my feet to assist her, and then I immediately sat back down once her mask was secured.
The flight attendant who was working at the front of the plane began to walk down the aisle with her portable oxygen bottle, visually checking on passengers.
I noticed that the tubing had come loose from thef coupling supplying the infant with air. I stood back up on my feet to re-secure the fitting and prayed that this would be the last time I would have to get up.
By this point, my wife had noticed that there was an issue occurring behind her with the mother and young child. She leaned over her seat to provide assistance to them. As she did so, there was excruciating noise and a large commotion that came from further back in the aircraft.
I sat back down in my seat, and turned my head to look over my left shoulder, looking further back towards the rear of the plane trying to determine where exactly the noise and commotion were coming from. I knew at that moment that there was a much larger issue at hand.
My wife knew too, and we immediately locked eyes, not knowing what our fate would be. That calm and subtle glance between my wife and I gave me the reassurance that I needed to go and assist like I’d been trained to do: to respond and assist in the event of an emergent situation.
In a strange way, the look that she gave me told me that we both knew that this was an emergent matter, and that a person or a group of people needed me more at that moment than she needed me.
Leaving my seat, I had no idea what I was about to face, and time seemed to pass slowly in my mind as I began to wonder what the situation could be. I made it back to Row 14 and began to size up the situation.
I looked inward and immediately saw Jennifer being pulled outside of the plane through a broken window—and there was someone in the row hanging on to her. I quickly, almost instinctively, laid across the other two passengers seated in the row and over the top of the person standing in the row.
I reached for whatever I could grab. I felt and placed a tight grip on the top of her pants and pulled with all I had. Suddenly, I felt someone grabbing onto me around my ankles from across the aisle.
I quickly determined that if we were going to have any chance at success, my feet needed to be secure on the ground for leverage. If this didn’t occur, then we were going to continue to struggle to fight the forces of wind speed from the exterior of the plane. I crawled off the passengers, stood to my feet, and asked the two passengers to move out of their seats.
I backed up a couple of rows in the aisle so that they could get out and move away from the area.
It was now officially go time at this point. I looked in and realized that, with all other obstacles out of the way it was up to me and Tim McGinty, who was standing in Row 15, to extricate and help Jennifer.
I positioned myself directly in front of Jennifer, and, together, Tim and I pulled with all of our strength in an effort to rescue her back inside the cabin.
There were moments that we began to sense or feel defeat, but we both carried on, knowing that this was someone’s family member. We were not going to give up.
Somehow, we were able to get Jennifer’s right arm back inside the plane. I told myself that if we could get her head inside the plane, then half of the battle was over.
We gave it all we had, pulling with all our strength, and we were ultimately successful in getting Jennifer back inside the plane. I unbuckled her and Tim and I laid her across the seats.
I looked at Tim and asked if he knew CPR. At this moment, Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse, came to our aid.
Traumatic Cardiac Arrest
Peggy and I were faced with a traumatic cardiac arrest. We both knew that that this situation was ultimately going to be grim. However, we began resuscitation, giving Jennifer the best care we could with what we had to offer.
As time passed, the plane continued its rapid but controlled descent, and the flight attendants, who were fastened in their seats at this point, began to call out over the intercom, “heads down, stay down, brace, brace, brace”—over and over.
Peggy and I continued resuscitative efforts and I told Peggy to get down, since nobody knew the condition of the plane or landing gear at this point. (Peggy would later appear on the ABC television show 20/20 and say that I actually pushed her down to a safer area.) I remember a lonely feeling at this point: continuing chest compressions as we landed at Philadelphia International Airport.
All passengers had followed the overhead instructions that they received from the flight attendants. As the plane touched down, passengers began to clap and shout with excitement, but we still had work to be done in Row 14.
Tyler Albin, a medical student I would later meet post-incident, came to Row 14 at this point and assisted us with airway control and ventilations.
We continued to work on Jennifer until Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) Engine 78 and Medic 30 crews arrived. After receiving our quick report and assuming resuscitation procedures, they removed Jennifer from the plane down a ground ladder because the mobile stair unit hadn’t yet arrived.
Tim and I walked to the front of the plane behind the PFD crews, and as I passed by my family, words wouldn’t come to my mouth because I was saddened by what my family just had to experience.
Tim and I continued forward and were met by the pilot and co-pilot, Tammy Jo Shults and Darren Ellisor, who were exiting the cockpit. We greeted one another with a simple gesture and then Tim and I began to scrub ourselves with germicidal wipes brought up to us by PFD crews.
By this time, the airport mobile stair unit and buses had arrived, and I was able to reunite with my family as they offloaded passengers from the aircraft row by row. They transported us to an unused terminal where we were held awaiting further instructions.
Colten, my oldest child, began to ask me questions that, as a dad, I didn’t know how to properly answer. All I could do was tell him the truth.
Our phones began to blow up as we waited for accommodations to unfold logistically. Southwest provided a return flight that was scheduled to depart at 18:30. As a family, we decided it would be in our best interest—and a potential lesson for our kids—to conquer the fear of flying that night.
We were warned in advance that news crews would be on hand when we landed in Dallas to try to obtain an interview. However, what we weren’t expecting was the group of friends who’d come to the airport to welcome us home. We were overtaken with emotion by this point, and we were so glad to be back home.
The media pursuit intensified greatly over the next few days. Calls were coming in from all over the United States, and a few from other countries, with requests for interviews. I quickly had to decide how to handle this situation, and I decided that I had to tell my story because, if I didn’t, someone else would.
I knew that I had to protect and honor Jennifer’s family with my story, glorify God and give credit to all the people who assisted me as first responders on that flight. This decision wasn’t an easy one, because in order to tell my story, I would be the only person talking. But it wasn’t just me on the plane that day; it was a team of amazing individuals.
The calls continued to pour in, and I’m so thankful for the family members who helped field these calls. And it wasn’t only my personal family, but my family at the fire station as well. They were being bombarded with just as many calls as I was.
By day two, post-incident, a press conference was held at the station where I work. I was honored at the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis by MSA. In addition, my family and I, along with other responders and the Southwest flight crew, were invited to a special recognition event at the White House.
We’re five months post-incident now, and my family and I have had to learn to adjust to our new normal. There’s yet to be a day that the incident hasn’t crossed my mind, and I can’t help but think about the Riordan family often.
We have adjusted, and, as we look back, we’re continuously in awe of the blessings and prayers we have received.
I will be forever grateful of the lessons learned from this experience. I hope that others will view my story as a positive, knowing that there are still people in the world who are willing to help others in their time of desperate need.