'He couldn't breathe:' Family speaks out after dog dies on United flight to New York City

NEW YORK (WABC) -- The distraught family of a dog that died after being placed in the overheard bin of a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York City is speaking out about the ordeal.

Eleven-year-old Sophia Ceballos, mom Catalina Robledo and their French bulldog Kokito boarded the flight Monday at Bush Intercontinental Airport. They claim they were forced to put his bag in the overhead compartment, and when the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, Sophia says she and her mother made the heartbreaking discovery.

"She's like, 'He died, he died. Kokito, Kokito.' And he didn't wake up," Ceballos said. "She hit his chest so he could breathe, but he couldn't breathe."

A passenger posted on Facebook saying a flight attendant "insisted" the dog be placed in the compartment.

"They assured the safety of the family's pet," June Lara wrote. "So wearily, the mother agreed."

There are differing stories about whether or not the flight attendant knew a dog was in the carrier. Passenger Maggie Gremminger told ABC News that the flight attendant seemed shocked and frazzled to discover the animal and said if she had known, she never would have instructed it to be put in the bin above.

Ceballos and her mother insist that the flight attendant knew, saying that Kokito barked.

"While we were flying, the dog started barking and barking, and there was no flight attendants coming," Ceballos said. "We couldn't stand up because there was a lot of turbulence, so we weren't allowed to."

The family claims they told the flight attendant several times that their puppy was in the bag.

"She said, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know it was a dog. I thought it was a normal bag,'" Ceballos said. "But we told her it was a dog. She's lying."

Ceballos said the flight attendant made them store the bag above because it partially blocked the aisle.

"We were going to put him under the seat, and then the flight attendants came," Ceballos said. "She said, 'You have to put him up there because it's going to block that path.' And we're like, 'It's a dog. It's a dog.' She's like, 'It doesn't matter, you still put it up there.' And she just put, she helped her put it up, and she just closed it like it was a baggage."

The family described Kokito as a special, smart and sweet dog who loved to play around in parks. They said they are truly heartbroken.

"He was a member of our family," Ceballos said. "He was like my little brother to me."

United Airlines said it refunded the family's tickets and in-cabin pet fee and offered to fund a necropsy. The airline issued an updated statement Wednesday:

"We have spoken to the family, our crew and a number of passengers who were seated nearby. We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier. However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin. As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident. We remain in contact with the family to express our condolences and offer support. To prevent this from happening again, by April we will issue bright colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets. This visual tag will further help our flight attendants identify pets in-cabin."

United didn't say whether anyone has been disciplined.

The Association of Flight Attendants issued the following statement:

"We feel deeply for this family and all those affected by this tragic event. This was clearly a horrific accident as there is not a single flight attendant working for any airline who would knowingly direct a passenger to put their pet in an overhead bin. We look forward to working with the industry to make sure something like this never happens again."

According to Department of Transportation statistics on animal incidents on U.S. carriers, United has the highest rate of incidents involving loss, injury or death of animals during air transportation, with 2.24 incidents every 10,000 animals transported.

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