Crash Landing

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Delta attorney O'Hara spoke to New Times on the airline's behalf but commented only briefly on the case. The exclusion of the five cards was an honest mistake, he explained. "Five of the comment cards were not included in the first batch of comment cards because five passengers had made claims that maybe they had been injured," O'Hara said. "Those comment cards were removed and put in those claims files."

O'Hara's explanation, however, contradicts Delta's previous sworn assertion that there had been no other injury claims or lawsuits stemming from the flight. Barker was living proof that Delta wasn't telling the truth. "I was afraid to go down the chute," Barker recalls of the evacuation. "I turned around to say something to the flight attendant, and he took me by the shoulders and shoved me right onto the chute, and I wasn't prepared for it. It was like a swan dive down. My buttock hit the runway and then my knees."

Barker says that when she learned from Hager that her card wasn't initially included, she was outraged. "They snatched my name right out of the file," she says. "If Delta had its way, I wouldn't exist. They wanted to hide me. I would really like to know why they tried to hide me."

In Barker's lawsuit, Delta alleged that the bomb threat had been received about 8:45 p.m. -- the first instance when Delta provided a time for the threat in any court documents. The time, however, contradicted an article published in the Greensboro News & Record the day after the evacuation. In the front-page report, the newspaper printed that the call had come in at 8:22 p.m.

Soon, Hager would come to realize that the newspaper article was closer to the truth. And the incorrect time Delta provided in Barker's lawsuit, Hager alleges, is central to why the airline was intent on hiding the truth.

The heart of Axelrad's complaint against Delta was that the flight attendants, contrary to the airline's procedures, failed to notify or instruct passengers about plans for an impromptu landing. "They should have said we are going to make an emergency landing and when we do, prepare to go down the slide," says Axelrad. "A simple order would have made it so much easier. Then so many people wouldn't have been injured."

In the case of bomb threats, Delta's procedures are specific: The plane must be evacuated as far from the terminal as possible, and chutes are deployed.

When deposed, the chief flight attendant, Cole Gardiner, explained one reason passengers were never given safety instructions. Capt. Harcourt told him only that there was a security threat but never mentioned a bomb, he testified. Because he didn't know the nature of the emergency, Gardiner said, he had no way to know what type of evacuation to expect.

A report that Harcourt wrote immediately following the evacuation, however, contradicted Gardiner's claim. "Got Cole Gardiner to the cockpit," Harcourt wrote. "I told him of the bomb threat.... I told him not to tell [the passengers] about a bomb."

A second flight attendant, Joe D'Aleo, also contradicted Gardiner's testimony, saying in a deposition that Gardiner had told him details of the bomb threat before the plane landed. Only the third flight attendant, Anne Medrano, who was accused of pushing Axelrad out of the plane, supported Gardiner's version of events.

On July 19, 2000, Delta finally provided Hager with a blurry printout of the flight history, most of it in code. The quality of the printout was so bad that Harcourt said during a deposition that even he couldn't make sense of it.

Delta, meanwhile, continued to block Hager's attempts to learn basic information about the bomb threat. When Hager demanded in court that Delta reveal the names of employees who had handled the threatening call, Delta attorney Palmer wrote in a sworn response August 1, 2000, that the airline had "not yet learned the identity of the individual who received and transmitted the bomb threat and is not able to tell if that person even exists."

During a hearing before Judge Cocalis nine days later, Delta attorneys finally announced that the person who had alerted the aircraft about the threat was named Kenneth Kaschok. Kaschok, Hager later learned, was mentioned in the flight history that Delta possessed all along. Only he was identified on that document not by name but by his employee identification number, DD42.

"Delta clearly knew Kaschok notified the pilot but mounted a continued effort to conceal that information from us," Hager alleges.

Hager soon got another break in the case. On August 31, 2000, airport police in Greensboro faxed her their report on the bomb threat (which Delta also had but never produced for the plaintiff, despite several requests). The one-page printout contained only nominal information, but for Hager, it was a major coup: For the first time, she learned the official time of the bomb threat: 8:21 p.m. The report also shed new light on the caller: He had a "strong Middle Eastern accent" and demanded that a prisoner (whose name isn't known) be released. And most important, Hager learned that the caller warned that the plane would blow up in 26 minutes.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman