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'It Just Doesn't Feel Real Yet': Dallas Passenger Reflects On Deadly Southwest Flight

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 17, 2018.

Federal investigators are looking into what caused engine failure on a Southwest plane bound for Dallas Tuesday. One passenger died, the first in-flight fatality for the airline. 

A passenger who survived the emergency landing says the experience doesn't even feel real yet.

Nelis Potgieter was heading home to Dallas from a conference — a day later than planned. Weather had delayed his Monday flight, so Southwest offered to rebook him Tuesday morning on Flight 1380, from New York LaGuardia to Dallas Love Field.

Twenty minutes in, the South Africa native says something went wrong.

"I suddenly had this awareness there was a really loud boom,” he said. “It sounded almost like an explosion. The plane just started shaking something terrible and you have that moment where your whole life flashes before your eyes."

Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and some people got their cell phones out to document the scene. One passenger captured the noise in the cabin via Facebook Live.

An engine had failed in midair.

Despite his initial fear and the chaos all around him, Potgieter says he didn't lose hope.

"It started feeling like the pilot had some measure of control over the plane — like it didn't feel like we were nosediving," he said. "So at that point, I started calming down a little bit, and that's when I noticed a window was out."

Credit Matty Martinez via AP
This April 17, 2018 photo provided by Matty Martinez shows the window that was shattered after a Southwest jet engine blew out at altitude.

The window that had shattered was on the other side of the plane, just one row ahead of where he was seated. Passenger Jennifer Riordan, had been partially sucked out of the missing window. Passengers worked together to pull her back in. Once they did, Potgieter watched helplessly as medical professionals tried to keep her alive.

"I believe Jennifer was receiving the best care that was available at that moment,” he said. “And it is just so sad that she ended up losing her life."

Potgeiter credits pilot Tammie Jo Shults for keeping a clear head during their emergency landing at the Philadelphia airport. He made it back to Dallas late Tuesday night. He still can't really make sense of what happened.

"I thought I would just sit and cry when I got home. That hasn't happened yet. I've just been very numb,” he said. “So in some ways, it just doesn't feel real yet."

Most people will never know what it's like to spend 20 minutes on an airplane that's lost an engine. Nelis Potgieter is now one of the few who does.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.