CBSN

How can a person be physically sucked from an airplane? A former pilot explains

The Philadelphia medical examiner said Wednesday that Jennifer Riordan, who was nearly sucked from a Southwest Airlines flight mid-air Tuesday, died from blunt trauma to the head, neck and torso. But retired United Airlines captain Ross Aimer told CBSN's Elaine Quijano on Wednesday that if Riordan hadn't been wearing her seat belt, it's likely she would have been completely sucked out of the aircraft.

"You have an incredible amount of pressure trying to rush out of that small opening -- it could literally suck a larger person -- they could become so small, they go through that window," Aimer said.

Federal investigators said Wednesday that a crack in the engine caused the engine to blow at 32,000 feet, sending the plane into a 40 degree bank to the left, CBS News transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave reports. The NTSB believes metal fatigue led to a engine fan blade breaking in flight, and the blast sent shrapnel tearing through one of the plane's windows, causing the cabin to lose pressure.

Riordan, who was wearing her seat belt, was partially sucked out of the window. Her fellow passengers pulled her back and tried unsuccessfully to perform CPR.

Aimer said there is a large amount of difference in pressure between the inside of the aircraft and the outside of the aircraft. "So if you would imagine like a balloon that you blow into it and it inflates -- same thing, the body of the aircraft is blown into forced air into the body the aircraft to pressurize it, otherwise passengers cannot survive at high altitude with lack of oxygen and pressure," Aimer said. "So if you can imagine that this window failing and it immediately wants to suck out all that air pressure."

Aimer said there was a similar incident in 1973, when a National Airlines DC-10 suffered an engine failure and one of the fan blades hit a window. It sucked a grown man out of the window and into the same engine on that side, Aimer said. His body was not found for about two years, Aimer said.

"It is extremely rare what happened but I'm happy to say the crew of this aircraft did an amazing job with the tremendous task they had at hand," Aimer said.

There were 149 passengers aboard the plane. Many are hailing captain Tammie Jo Shults as a hero for safely landing the plane.

"She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her. I want to send her a Christmas card," one passenger said.