American Airlines responds to passenger death

February 25, 2008 4:02:58 PM PST
American Airlines on Monday responded to claims that it was responsible for the death of a passenger who died on a flight from Haiti to New York City. The airline insists that its employees tried to help the passenger when she couldn't breath, and that the medical equipment on board was working properly.

Forty-four-year-old Carine Desir died on the flight, and family members contend the flight crew was slow to help her and that the oxygen tanks used to help her were empty.

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Hoffer has more.

Every single commercial flight in the U.S. must have specific medical equipment on board or it cannot legally take off.

Our investigation finds this jetliner had all the required equipment, but was it working? That's the question that haunts Flight 896.

The sudden death of the Brooklyn woman is raising serious questions about the airline's responsibilities during a medical emergency.

"She said 'My darling, please don't let me die. Go ask for some oxygen for me please,'" the victim's cousin, Antonio Oliver, said.

Last Friday, Olivier says he was sitting next to Desir when she started having trouble breathing. After pleading with the flight attendants for oxygen, he says they responded with two portable tanks. He insists both tanks were empty.

"The doctor said, 'Nothing is working in the plane, I can't believe it,'" Oliver said.

That doctor, in a statement released by his attorney, says "Oxygen tanks were available," but he cannot "confirm any level of oxygen that may have been contained within them."

American Airlines claims, "Oxygen was administered and the automatic external defibrillator was applied."

A spokesman added that "the airline stands behind the actions and training of its crew and the functionality of the onboard medical equipment."

"They're not expected to be miracle workers in the airplane," aviation attorney Marc Moller said.

Moeller says the responsibility of the airline in a medical emergency is clear.

"The best they can do under the circumstances is a requirement," he said. "The equipment has to be functioning properly, and it has to be used properly."

FAA requirements for on-board medical equipment include automatic external defibrillators, an IV kit and certain drugs, such as epinephrine for allergic reaction and nitroglycerine for chest pains.

Oxygen is also required for first aid, with no less than two tanks on every flight. American says there were 12 oxygen bottles on board. It will be up to FAA investigators to sort out whether anyone is to blame.

Meanwhile, the death of Carine Desir is, to some, a wake-up call.

"The only good that can come out of this tragedy is if every airline makes sure all of their life-saving equipment that's on board the plane is working 100 percent," New York Senator Chuck Schumer said.

The medical examiner says Desir died of heart disease, which she had a history of. The FAA says its investigation will focus on maintenance of the equipment and training of the flight crew.