When the unimaginable happened at 35,000 feet, strangers banded together to help Jennifer Riordan

By Jason Duaine Hahn
April 25, 2018 03:00 PM
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When Southwest Flight 1380 from New York to Dallas hit turbulence while it climbed into the sky just last week, 42-year-old Hollie Mackey turned to Jennifer Riordan, the woman sitting two seats to her left, and gave her a quick look.

“Jennifer and I gave each other one of those, ‘Oh good,’ sort of looks, just kind of joking, like, ‘It’s gonna be one of those flights,’ ” Mackey — an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma — tells PEOPLE, recalling the turbulence of that morning. “But it didn’t feel right that day.”

Though they were strangers, the lives of Riordan and Mackey would forever be intertwined just minutes later. Shortly after their shared glance, the left engine of their Boeing 737 exploded and sent shrapnel both into the aircraft’s fuselage and into the window next to Riordan, shattering it.

“It was very cold. As soon as I heard it, I turned immediately to my seatmate, because I knew it was someplace very close to us, because I could also feel the cold,” Mackey says of the explosion. “It all happened simultaneously, and Jennifer was pulled.”

Riordan — a bank executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico — was pulled halfway out of the window after it blew open, with the seatbelt around her waist keeping her from being completely sucked away.

“I turned to look at Jennifer and the girl,” Mackey recalls, “and Jennifer was already out of the plane.”

Mackey and the young teenage girl who sat between them, both grabbed Riordan in a desperate attempt to save her.

Hollie Mackey
| Credit: Courtesy Hollie Mackey

Mackey and the teenage girl tried to get their oxygen masks on, but both had trouble working the straps. With Riordon in need of help, Mackey gave up her mask and tried to pull in her seatmate.

“I had grabbed on to Jennifer’s belt area, and belt-loop area, and wrapped my arm around her waist, and tried to pull her in,” she says. “And then the little girl actually did too.”

While she and the teenage girl did their best to pull Riordan in, the suction coming from the window’s opening was too strong.

For much more on the passengers of Flight 1380, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday

“It was more of a helpless feeling than anything else,” Mackey says. “Because with the altitude and that air pressure at that time, we were not physically able to move her at all.”

Mackey says they were overwhelmed by a deafening noise once the window blew open, which prevented anyone from hearing calls for assistance.

“We tried yelling for help. We tried, you just couldn’t hear anything,” she continues. “Everybody was just communicating with their eyes because nobody could really hear anything initially.”

Once Mackey realized that she, too, could feel the suction pulling her to the window from her aisle seat, she then concentrated on protecting the young girl seated between her and Riordan.

Captain Tammie Jo Shults
| Credit: Kevin Garber/Splash

“I just decided that I needed to stay with the girl. Because we were feeling it pulling us a little bit,” Mackey says, adding that she realized she couldn’t do anything to help Riordan until the plane depressurized. “I wasn’t certain that it wasn’t strong enough to pull the girl out, if I unbuckled her and tried to move her out of the way. And I just didn’t know.”

As Mackey contemplated what to do next, captain Tammie Jo Shults — a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy — pointed the damaged plane toward Philadelphia as she prepared for an emergency landing. About 10 minutes after Riordan was sucked outside — and with Shults dropping the plane’s elevation—Texas ranch realtor Tim McGinty and firefighter Andrew Needum rose from their seats and made their way to row 14.

“At that point, they climbed over us,” Mackey says. “I unbuckled, and slid out, so they could have room to work. And then helped the little girl get out, so we weren’t in their way. We tried to stay out of their way, and just keep people from videotaping, and taking pictures.”

Once the two men got Riordan inside, Peggy Phillips — a retired nurse — performed CPR on the unconscious woman until the plane landed about 10 minutes later.

“It appeared that the pilot had it under control, and I wasn’t nervous until they told us to brace for landing, then I got really nervous again because I was not buckled in,” Mackey says. “It was softer than most of the landings I’ve been in that are not emergency landings…Then I felt okay. That’s when people around us started crying, and getting very emotional.”

Peggy Phillips and Tim McGinty

Riordan eventually died from her injuries — becoming the only fatality aboard Flight 1380.

For Mackey, seeing how quickly those aboard came to help, even in the face danger, gave her hope.

“The value of one person cannot be underestimated. And that was the one thing our entire plane knew,” Mackey says. “And I also learned that I’m not alone in knowing the value of that, because there wasn’t anybody on that plane who didn’t deeply value her.”

Mackey says it wasn’t until she made it home to Oklahoma from Philadelphia later that night to reunite with her family that the weight of the agonizing event settled in.

“It was finally my turn to get to drop everything and cry, and think about how scared I was,” she says. “I didn’t have to be strong, because I didn’t have other people to be strong for anymore.”