Crash Landing

Delta blew it when someone phoned in a bomb threat. Then the airline tried to cover it up.

Flying home after Christmas in New York City six years ago, Janie Axelrad wanted to relax, and the empty rows of seats in the back of the Boeing 757 were calling. So she left her fiancé, Joseph LaPorte, in their ticketed seats in the crowded midsection of the plane and walked back to an empty aisle of Delta Flight 1145, where she stretched out her long legs. At five feet nine, Axelrad was then a striking beauty, with a trim and full figure, long and lush brown hair, and a pretty, almost perfectly oval face.

When flight attendants served refreshments, Axelrad bought a glass of wine and, as she sipped it, thought of coming home to Delray Beach to see her son, Steven, who was then seven years old. She was ready to go home, even though she and LaPorte, who was something of a surrogate father to her son, had had a great time. Packed in their luggage were pictures they'd taken of Big Apple landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, the Twin Towers crowning the Manhattan skyline.

Then things got weird at 31,000 feet. The three flight attendants suddenly stopped serving passengers and went back into the kitchen, where Axelrad could see them huddling together through a crack in the doorway. She could hear whispering but couldn't make out the words. Then they came out and abruptly locked down the serving tables. Axelrad didn't think it was possible that they could already be in Atlanta, where the plane was scheduled to stop before flying on to Fort Lauderdale.

She asked the attendants what was wrong.

"No, no, nothing's wrong," one of them answered. "We're already there. We're about to land."

Axelrad could hardly believe they were already there but returned to her seat next to LaPorte. After five minutes or so, the plane began its descent, which seemed much steeper and faster than usual. When the wheels hit the runway, the aircraft stopped quickly, with a little jerk. Then the pilot, Capt. Raymond Harcourt, announced the truth. This was an emergency evacuation. Harcourt ordered the passengers to leave behind their belongings and proceed to the nearest exit, which for Axelrad was in the center of the plane. As she walked toward the flight attendant at the door, she remembers thinking, "They lied to me. Something is wrong. Oh my God."

When it was her turn to exit, Axelrad says she expected a flight of stairs, "like the president goes down." She was in for a brutal surprise.

"I turned to the right, and [the flight attendant] grabs my left upper arm, and she yells, "Go!'" Axelrad remembers. "And I go flying out of the plane, and I start spinning around on this chute, not sliding correctly, not even knowing I was on a chute, and I ended up landing on both of my knees on the runway."

At the bottom, with what would later be diagnosed as a broken kneecap, several passengers slammed into Axelrad before LaPorte helped her up. While LaPorte and the other 115 passengers on the plane ran to a nearby field, a medic treated Axelrad. Soon, she and another passenger, a man with an injured ankle, were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. According to a newspaper article published the next day, eight passengers suffered injuries during the rushed evacuation.

Soon, she learned that she was not in Atlanta but at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina. After she was treated at a local hospital, she was taken back to the airport, where FBI agents questioned her. They asked her if she had any enemies and if she knew anyone who didn't want her to get on the plane. Then they told her there had been a bomb threat.

Axelrad says that even though no bomb exploded, she's been scarred for life. During her fall down the chute onto the coarse concrete runway, her right knee was fractured, according to medical records. Her knees were especially vulnerable -- she'd already had surgery on the left one after a fall at a skating rink as a teenager, and she suffered from arthritis in both.

Since the wild ride down the chute, the pain has been almost constant, she says. Four months after the emergency landing, she underwent major surgery on the knee, leaving her with a ten-inch scar and a disfiguring mound of bone grafted to the top of her shin. In all, she's been through dozens of medical procedures and physical-therapy sessions. She's now on permanent disability and concedes she's hooked on pain pills.

Axelrad says Delta refused from the beginning to help her, so she sued the company in 1996, seeking payment of her medical bills, which now total about $100,000, and other damages. The airline has vigorously fought her claims in court through the years and just last month emerged victorious from a five-week trial at the Broward County Courthouse.

The jury, however, didn't hear the whole story of what happened that night, and Axelrad's attorney, Julie Hager, has requested a new trial.

Whether Axelrad prevails, her case shows just how far Delta will go to thwart plaintiffs and bury its mistakes. Hager alleges that Delta lied repeatedly in sworn documents about key facts and tried to hide an important witness. At the heart of the apparent cover-up, she says, is Delta's desire to conceal what really happened on Flight 1145, including a long delay in getting word to the pilot of what appeared to be a terrorist threat. Had the caller been telling the truth, the delay would have sealed the fate of all those onboard, Hager claims.

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