Passenger's plea: "Don't let me die"

February 25, 2008 7:22:03 AM PST
'I cannot breathe' - Cousin of woman who died aboard NY-bound flight blames faulty equipment

Struggling to breathe, American Airlines passenger Carine Desir asked for oxygen, but a flight attendant twice refused her request, the woman's cousin said.

"Don't let me die," the cousin, Antonio Oliver, recalled Desir saying after the attendant allegedly refused at first to administer the oxygen Friday.

But Desir did die, Oliver said Sunday in a telephone interview.

He said the flight attendant finally relented but various medical devices on the plane failed, including two oxygen tanks that were found to be empty and what may have been a defibrillator that seemed to malfunction.

American Airlines confirmed the flight death and said medical professionals had tried to save the woman. A spokeswoman for the airline, Sonja Whitemon, wouldn't comment Sunday on Oliver's claims of faulty medical equipment on the plane.

Desir, who had heart disease, died of natural causes, medical examiner's office spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said Sunday. Desir had complained of not feeling well and being very thirsty on the Friday flight home from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after she ate a meal, according to Oliver, who was traveling with her and her brother, Joel Desir. A flight attendant gave her water, he said. A few minutes later, Desir said she was having "trouble breathing" and asked for oxygen, but a flight attendant twice refused her request, Oliver said.

He said other passengers aboard Flight 896 became agitated over the situation, and the flight attendant, apparently after phone consultation with the cockpit, tried to administer oxygen from a portable tank and mask, but the tank was empty.

Oliver said two doctors and two nurses were aboard and tried to administer oxygen from a second tank, which also was empty.

Desir, of New York City, was placed on the floor, and a nurse tried CPR, Oliver said. A "box," possibly a defibrillator, also was applied but didn't function effectively, he said.

Oliver said he then asked for the plane to "land right away so I can get her to a hospital," and the pilot agreed to divert to Miami, 45 minutes away. But during that time Desir collapsed and died, Oliver said.

"Her last words were, 'I cannot breathe,"' he said.

Desir, 44, was pronounced dead by one of the doctors, Joel Shulkin, and the flight continued to John F. Kennedy International Airport, without stopping in Miami. The woman's body was moved to the floor of the first-class section and covered with a blanket, Oliver said.

Shulkin, through his attorney, Justin Nadeau, declined to comment on the incident.