Crash Landing

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Now, Hager finally understood why the crew was so hurried. Capt. Harcourt didn't learn of the threat until 8:44 p.m. That meant 23 minutes had passed before the pilot was informed, leaving only three minutes to land the plane before the expected explosion -- a physical impossibility. As quick as the landing was, it still took about 15 minutes to reach Greensboro and empty the plane of passengers and crew.

A month after she received the police report, Hager obtained the declassified FBI file on the case. The file identified the Delta employee who took the call, a receptionist in the Miami reservations office named Christina Rooney -- whom Delta had claimed it didn't even know existed. Also included was a memo Rooney had written on Delta letterhead about the bomb threat. Again, Delta had sworn that it didn't have any such documents. Hager soon learned that Rooney should have been quite easy to find; she was still employed by the airline.

From that FBI file, Hager also learned that, contrary to Delta's assertions, there was a tape recording of the bomb threat:

"You have 26 minutes," the caller says. "The flight is Delta 1145. There is an explosive in the -- "

"What kind of explosive?" Rooney asks.

"The plastic kind, in the cabin."

Delta attorneys, meanwhile, were stonewalling Hager's efforts to depose Kaschok. First, they said they weren't able to determine if Kaschok was still employed by Delta. Hager discovered on her own that not only was he employed by the airline but that he worked in Atlanta. Amazingly, Delta attorney Palmer then wrongfully declared that Kaschok actually lived in Miami, which caused further delays. Finally, Judge Cocalis ordered that Delta make Kaschok available, and Hager finally deposed him on September 5, 2000.

Kaschok told Hager that he alerted the aircraft only after he overheard other Delta employees talking about the bomb threat. Though he was the flight controller, nobody directly notified him about it. But when Kaschok heard the details, he said that he knew it was a serious threat and that he "had to do something immediately." By the time he was able to transmit the information to Harcourt on an electronic message system, it was 8:36 p.m. -- 15 minutes after the threat was received. This would have given the pilot only 11 minutes to make an emergency landing and evacuate the plane. Harcourt didn't see the message until 8:44 p.m., reducing the response time to the impossible three minutes.

O'Hara wouldn't comment about the apparent concealment of Kaschok's and Rooney's identities or the delay. But he says there is a simple reason the company never turned over the tape recording of the bomb threat or the Rooney memo. "That stuff had been given to the FBI, and Delta didn't have it anymore. It was all with the FBI," he says. "But the information that was on the tape was known by the plaintiff. The information contained on that tape was in the newspaper in 1995."

The newspaper article, however, included nothing about a time bomb, a Middle Eastern accent, the delay in getting the threat to the pilot, or other essential information. (The FBI found no evidence that the threat was the work of a terrorist and has made no arrests in the case.)

This past March 27, Delta finally provided Axelrad's attorney with a legible passenger list, including addresses, phone numbers, and other information. "Apparently, the attached production had been misplaced and recently located," Delta co-counsel Palmer explained in a letter to Hager.

When the trial began in early October, Hager says, she felt Axelrad would win. What she didn't count on was that the jury would be barred from hearing most of her evidence.

When Sally Barker flew to Fort Lauderdale this October to testify in Axelrad's case against Delta, she'd never met Janie Axelrad. But in the courtroom, she recognized the plaintiff. And what she saw was a far cry from the woman she had seen on the night of December 29, 1995. "I remember she was small and had beautiful hair, long beautiful hair," Barker recalls. "I don't know what drew her to me that night -- I still don't know her at all. But I saw [in the courtroom] what a toll it's taken on her. It's bad. She's not the same girl. She was a very pretty girl, very pretty."

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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