Mary Cunningham humbly calls the pilot and crew the "real heroes" for the quick emergency landing

By Kathy Ehrich Dowd
April 23, 2015 01:00 PM
Courtesy Mary Cunningham

A nurse who assisted sick passengers on board a SkyWest flight that made an emergency landing Wednesday humbly declines to call herself a hero – instead deeming the pilot and crew the “real heroes” for taking quick actions that potentially saved lives.

Mary Cunningham, 25, an emergency room nurse from Niantic, Connecticut, tells PEOPLE they were about midway through their flight from Chicago to Windsor Locks, Connecticut, when she heard an announcement over the loudspeaker asking if any medical professionals were on board.

“I looked around for a second and didn’t see anyone volunteering, so I raised my hand. I was the only one,” says Cunningham, who was on a connecting flight on the way home from a vacation in Sanibel, Florida.

A flight attendant quickly ushered her over to a passenger seated near the middle of the plane who was “very lethargic, turning gray, looked very ill,” she says.

Cunningham requested an oxygen tank, and once the passenger received the oxygen, “her color came back, she was more alert and just looked a lot better,” she says.

Thinking the emergency was over, Cunningham began to return to her seat, but a moment before she sat down they ushered her back again.

This time, she saw another woman passed out unconscious. She was seated directly behind the first ill passenger. As Cunningham began to assess this second passenger, she says she herself began to feel ill – and knew something was gravely wrong.

“I made my way to the back of the plane to try and catch my breath,” she says. “Slowly the flight attendant became ill, and other people as well.”

The flight crew asked Cunningham if she thought they should get on the ground quickly. She did. “I told the flight attendant to speak to the pilot to make an emergency landing,” she said.

Cunningham stressed that the crew acted extremely professionally and quickly alerted the pilot, who took immediate action.

“The pilot told us he was making an emergency landing and we’d be in Buffalo in about 20 minutes,” she says. “He told us they would be making a very rapid descent.”

Everyone quickly got to their seats and strapped in, she says, as the plane made a landing Cunningham deemed nothing short of petrifying.

“They started a very quick nosedive,” she says. “It was absolutely terrifying … the scary thing was none of the oxygen masks were coming down.”

As for the mood on board the plane during the descent, Cunningham says, “Everybody was almost trying to comfort each other; a lot of people were praying. “It was pretty solemn, definitely a grave situation.”

However, she says the atmosphere was calm – thanks to the efforts of the crew.

“The flight attendants did a great job keeping us informed. I can’t speak enough of them,” she says. “People have the impression there was panic or chaos, but it was pretty well controlled. I want to reiterate what a great job the flight attendants and pilots did.”

Once on the ground, “people were clapping and cheering. It was complete relief from all around when the plane landed,” says Cunningham, who adds that EMTs boarded the flight to tend to the ill passengers.

Cunningham’s father, Dan Cunningham, tells PEOPLE he couldn’t be more proud of his daughter – and the actions she took in the heat of the moment.

“I’m very proud of her,” he says. “She’s an ER nurse and in life-and-death situations all the time for work, but never in her life like this. She kept her head.”
“It could have been the worst day of my life,” he adds. “But it ended up being a great day.”

The investigation into the cause of the medical issues on the flight is still ongoing.

SkyWest Flight 5622, operated by United Express