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Ex-safety investigator says incident is ‘extremely rare’

Front page from Nov. 5, 1973. Man was sucked out of plane in New Mexico.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many were horrified on Tuesday upon learning an Albuquerque woman was killed after being partially pulled out of a plane when a nearby window was smashed by debris from an exploding engine.

“Two words: extremely rare,” said Alan Diehl, a former air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Air Force, of incidents involving passengers being pulled from planes in flight.

But on Nov. 3, 1973, a similar scenario unfolded on a flight over southwest New Mexico heading from Houston to Las Vegas, Nev.

Then, a Texas man died after he was pulled entirely from the plane when an engine on a National Airlines DC-10 flight blew up. G.F. Gardner, 47, of Beaumont, Texas, was pulled from the plane at 40,000 feet over an area near Magdalena.

His skeletal remains were found two years later during construction of the Very Large Array radio telescope near Socorro.

“That engine literally fell apart,” passenger David Drucker told the Journal in a Nov. 5, 1973, article.

The plane made an emergency landing at the Albuquerque airport, and 24 of the 127 surviving passengers and crew members were treated for smoke inhalation, ear problems and minor abrasions, according to the 1975 accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Passengers said they attempted to pull Gardner back inside the aircraft but were unable to do so.

He was wearing a seat belt, but the report stated there were around eight inches of slack in the belt.

“Efforts to pull the passenger back into the airplane by another passenger were unsuccessful, and the occupant of seat 17H was subsequently forced entirely through the cabin window,” the report stated.

The report determined that the engine’s fan blades had contacted the fan case during flight, causing the disintegration of the engine.

NTSB investigators say Jennifer Riordan, the Albuquerque banking executive killed in Tuesday’s accident, was wearing a seatbelt, but was still pulled halfway through the opening left by the broken window, where she remained for “several minutes” until a man was able to pull her back inside.

The Associated Press reported Philadelphia’s medical examiner said Riordan died from blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso.

“When you’re talking about those kinds of speeds, the human body is just not capable,” Diehl said. “It’s what the flailing into the structure can do to the body.”

Preliminary results by the NTSB have indicated that one of the fan blades on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 that snapped off midflight showed signs of metal fatigue.