by Evelyn Nieves, New York Times
BAKERSFIELD, Calif., It is going on five months since
Dabney, 70 years old and robbed of reason by Alzheimer's
disease, was somehow
lost at Dallas-Fort Worth International
She and her wheelchair-bound husband, Joe, arrived there on an
Airlines flight from Indianapolis about 10:15 a.m. on Dec 5.
supposed to be escorted to a connecting flight to Los
Angeles. But Mr.
Dabney found himself being wheeled to the gate
without his wife, and no
one can say where she went.
Mrs. Dabney was spotted that morning walking on an airport service
and again two days later in the same area. That is all anyone
Mr. Dabney, a 63-year-old retired taxi driver and construction
tries not to think the worst. His wife of 34 years was a wisp
of a person,
95 pounds wet, and dependent on medication to control
her diabetes and
high blood pressure. She could not have survived on
her own for long. But
maybe some kind soul has taken her in, he
"I keep thinking, We can still find her," he said. Then, in the
breath, he blurted out, "I don't know how the hell this could
He blames American Airlines, which he is suing for $10 million on
of gross negligence, incompetence and breach of contract. He
lost his wife "like a piece of luggage."
Mr. Dabney's lawyer, Bruce E. South, says the airline has actually
Mrs. Dabney "worse than luggage," refusing to provide
might help trace her steps. The airline was sued,
Mr. South says, only
after he failed to obtain a variety of facts,
among them the names of employees
who might have seen her and those
of people on the flight who witnessed
her abnormal conduct, which, he
says, should have served as an alert that
she needed special
American, through a spokeswoman, says it has done everything
to help find Mrs. Dabney, including posting a $10,000
reward, hiring a
private investigator and flying relatives to Dallas.
say they, too, did everything they could to find
her before notifying the
news media two days after she vanished.
Much of what happened the day Mrs. Dabney disappeared is in dispute.
As Mr. Dabney describes it, the morning began when he and his wife
an early flight from Indianapolis, where Mrs. Dabney had been
one of their 10 children. He had taken her there from
their home here in
Bakersfield some days earlier, because he was
scheduled for surgery on
a hip ailment that had kept him in a
wheelchair. He would be unable to
watch her while he recovered.
But their daughter was not able to watch her, either, without
her inside a room. Mr. Dabney objected to that, he says,
so he canceled
his operation and flew to Indianapolis to bring her
At the Indianapolis airport, Mr. Dabney says, their daughter told
American Airlines attendant that Mrs. Dabney had Alzheimer's and
need help, and asked the airline for an escort to meet the
plane at Dallas-Fort
Worth and take the couple to their connecting
flight. Mrs. Dabney was tagged
with a card the same kind used
to designate unaccompanied children
that identified her as in
need of assistance.
Mr. Dabney says all the airline personnel on board soon became
that Mrs. Dabney needed to be watched, because she tried
opening a rear
door of the plane in midflight. Flight attendants
escorted her back to
her seat, he says.
After the plane landed, Mr. Dabney says, an airline escort who
not to understand much English wheeled him from the jetway.
That, he says,
was the last he saw of his wife.
"I was turning back saying, `Where's my wife, where's my wife?' "
Dabney said, sitting in the small cottage he rented for himself
wife last year. The attendant told him that his wife had gone
to the bathroom.
"I said, `Wait a minute, you let her go to the
bathroom? Don't you know
she has Alzheimer's?' "
Mr. Dabney says he kept looking behind him for his wife, did not
her and tried applying his wheelchair's brakes. When the
not stop, he says, he took one of the wheelchair's
footrests and hit him
with it. The attendant called security
personnel, who arrived at the scene
and, Mr. Dabney says, threatened
to arrest him for assault.
"They kept me there, and I kept trying to explain he lost my wife
she's sick," he said. They encouraged him to catch his flight
home to California,
or be arrested, and told him that his wife would
be found with no problem,
American Airlines has a different account. A lone attendant did
the couple at the jetway, said Andrea Rader, an airline
attendant wheeled Mr. Dabney off the jetway, with
Mrs. Dabney by their
side. By Ms. Rader's account, one of the
Dabneys, or perhaps both, then
wanted to go to the bathroom.
Although Mrs. Dabney was still wearing the tag showing she
assistance, the attendant did not see it under her coat, Ms.
Further, she said, Mrs. Dabney "seemed very lucid" at the
"She seemed fine," Ms. Rader said. "She didn't show any indication
she required special services."
Ms. Rader said Mrs. Dabney was supposed to meet her husband and
attendant either outside the men's and women's restrooms,
adjacent to each
other, or at the gate to the connecting flight; the
spokeswoman is not
sure which. When Mrs. Dabney did not show up, the
attendant, a man, asked
a woman to go the restroom and look for
But she was not there, Ms. Rader said, and it was only then that
Dabney mentioned that his wife had Alzheimer's disease. Airline
began a gate-to-gate search, the spokeswoman said.
"About 45 minutes later we realized that we weren't going to find
and called the police," Ms. Rader said. Mr. Dabney, she said,
to Los Angeles because he wanted to, telling airline
employees that his
wife went missing "all the time" and was always
Ken Capps, a spokesman for the airport, said it had decided not to
reporters' questions about the disappearance unless new
available. In an e-mail message written in January
that is sent to all
reporters who call about the case, Mr. Capps
provides a time line of what
the airport says it has done to find
Mrs. Dabney. The time line lists Dec.
6 as the date airport personnel
began searching. Reached by phone, Mr.
Capps said this was an error;
the search began, he said, on Dec. 5, the
day Mrs. Dabney was
Ms. Rader, of American Airlines, said tracking dogs were used to
for Mrs. Dabney on Dec. 9, after someone called in response to
which began on Dec. 7. The airport's e-mail message
suggests that use of
the dogs began immediately and continued for
several days. In either case,
tracking dogs followed Mrs. Dabney's
scent along a service road. But the
scent vanished abruptly,
suggesting that she entered a car at that point.
Two of Mr. Dabney's daughters, who have hired Johnnie L. Cochran
as their own lawyer, have been back to Dallas with him several
says, to distribute fliers.
"I just sit here and cry," he said. "Who knows what happened to Margie?"