"He said, we're going down. And everyone is looking around like, is this a joke? Is he serious? And then you felt the nosedive," passenger Shelley Wills said.
Wills told ABC11 the Tuesday night flight from Tampa took a nosedive thousands of feet in the air while they were about 100 miles away from RDU.
Wills is a nurse and tried helping the first-time flier seated next to her who was clutching her chest.
"I'm thinking oh my God, she's going to scare herself into a heart attack," Wills said.
She said people all around her pulled out their cell phones in a desperate attempt to reach their loved ones. She texted her daughter and her husband, but the messages did not go through.
"It says I love you Alyssa. My plane is going down," she read. "I thought I was going to die and that's what everyone on that plane thought. That we were all going to die, just by one word of the captain. I just think they could have handled it a little differently."
Minutes after the plane dropped, Wills said the Boeing 737 leveled out and went on to make an emergency landing at RDU.
"And the last words were thank you for hanging with us," Wills said.
Southwest Airlines issued this statement regarding the incident:
"Flight 3426 experienced a maintenance alert as they were on descent into RDU. The Captain declared an emergency and descended the aircraft to 25,000 feet where the alert was resolved. Throughout the remainder of the descent the flight was normal, landed uneventfully, and was not met by emergency vehicles."
- Michelle Agnew - Southwest Airlines communication specialist
ABC11 has learned that the maintenance alert went off due to irregular cabin pressure. The FAA is now investigating.
According to FlightStats, WN Flight-3426 arrived at RDU two minutes ahead of schedule at 6:08pm. The plane went on to BWI at 7:32 p.m., 66 minutes behind schedule.
There have been a total of 72 crashes involving Boeing 737-700 out of over 175 million flights. This statistic makes the Boeing 737 one of the safest planes ever made.