04/25/2002

Robbed by Alzheimer's, Lost by an Airline

by Evelyn Nieves, New York Times

BAKERSFIELD, Calif., — It is going on five months since Margie Dabney, 70 years old and robbed of reason by Alzheimer's disease, was somehow lost at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

She and her wheelchair-bound husband, Joe, arrived there on an American Airlines flight from Indianapolis about 10:15 a.m. on Dec 5. They were 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 road, and again two days later in the same area. That is all anyone has seen of her.

Mr. Dabney, a 63-year-old retired taxi driver and construction worker, 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 hopes.

"I keep thinking, We can still find her," he said. Then, in the same breath, he blurted out, "I don't know how the hell this could happen."

He blames American Airlines, which he is suing for $10 million on grounds of gross negligence, incompetence and breach of contract. He says American lost his wife "like a piece of luggage."

Mr. Dabney's lawyer, Bruce E. South, says the airline has actually treated Mrs. Dabney "worse than luggage," refusing to provide information that 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 attention.

American, through a spokeswoman, says it has done everything possible to help find Mrs. Dabney, including posting a $10,000 reward, hiring a private investigator and flying relatives to Dallas. Airport officials 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 caught an early flight from Indianapolis, where Mrs. Dabney had been staying with 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 padlocking her inside a room. Mr. Dabney objected to that, he says, so he canceled his operation and flew to Indianapolis to bring her home.

At the Indianapolis airport, Mr. Dabney says, their daughter told an American Airlines attendant that Mrs. Dabney had Alzheimer's and would 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 aware 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 seemed 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?' " Mr. Dabney said, sitting in the small cottage he rented for himself and his 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 see her and tried applying his wheelchair's brakes. When the attendant would 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 and 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, he said.

American Airlines has a different account. A lone attendant did meet the couple at the jetway, said Andrea Rader, an airline spokeswoman. The 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 required assistance, the attendant did not see it under her coat, Ms. Rader said. Further, she said, Mrs. Dabney "seemed very lucid" at the time.

"She seemed fine," Ms. Rader said. "She didn't show any indication that she required special services."

Ms. Rader said Mrs. Dabney was supposed to meet her husband and the 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 her.

But she was not there, Ms. Rader said, and it was only then that Mr. Dabney mentioned that his wife had Alzheimer's disease. Airline employees began a gate-to-gate search, the spokeswoman said.

"About 45 minutes later we realized that we weren't going to find her and called the police," Ms. Rader said. Mr. Dabney, she said, flew back to Los Angeles because he wanted to, telling airline employees that his wife went missing "all the time" and was always found.

Ken Capps, a spokesman for the airport, said it had decided not to answer reporters' questions about the disappearance unless new information became 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 lost.

Ms. Rader, of American Airlines, said tracking dogs were used to search for Mrs. Dabney on Dec. 9, after someone called in response to the publicity, 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 Jr. as their own lawyer, have been back to Dallas with him several times, he says, to distribute fliers.

"I just sit here and cry," he said. "Who knows what happened to Margie?"

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