PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On the night of June 7, inside the terminal at Portland International Airport, Bernice Kekona — seat-belted to her wheelchair — tumbled and crashed down an escalator, landing near the bottom with the heavy chair on top of her.
The then 74-year-old woman was heading back to Spokane after a month-long trip to Maui, a trip she makes once per year to visit her family and her former home. But instead of getting on a flight, she headed to a Portland trauma center for medical attention. Three months later, a day after she had her right leg amputated below the knee due to an infected wound she suffered in the fall at PDX, Bernice passed away.
Now, there are questions about the events that led up to Bernice’s fall, and her family wants answers.
Berince’s daughter, Darlene Bloyed, representing the estate of Bernice Kekona, is suing Alaska Airlines and Huntleigh USA for the wrongful death of her mother. The lawsuit, filed in King County, Washington, alleges the 2 defending companies didn’t properly provide the gate-to-gate service that is available to people under the Air Carrier Access Act and that Bernice’s family requested.
“One way or another, the service was not provided and Alaska (Airlines) did not have any mechanisms in place to protect against such a tragedy or an accident that could happen if the service wasn’t provided,” said Brook Cunningham, the lawyer representing the Kekona family in this case. “Which is what happened here.”
The family is seeking reparation for damages, expenses and any “further relief as the court may deem just and proper” resulting from Bernice’s eventually fatal fall, according to court documents.
KOIN 6 News reached out to Alaska Airlines and a spokesman provided this statement regarding the incident, saying Bernice “declined assistance in the terminal.”
We’re heartbroken by this tragic and disturbing incident.
We don’t have all the facts, but after conducting a preliminary investigation, it appears that Ms. Kekona declined ongoing assistance in the terminal and decided to proceed on her own to her connecting flight. It also appears that when her family members booked the reservation, they did not indicate the passenger had “Blind/low vision,” “Deaf/hard of hearing,” or “other special needs (i.e., developmental or intellectual disability, senior/elderly).” There was no indication in the reservation that Ms. Kekona had cognitive, visual, or auditory impairments.
After landing in Portland, Ms. Kekona was assisted into her own motorized scooter by an airport consortium wheelchair service provider who then escorted her from the aircraft down the jet bridge before she went off on her own. We learned from bystanders that Ms. Kekona sustained a fall while attempting to operate her own electronic chair down a moving escalator next to the A concourse elevator. We immediately called the Port of Portland Fire and Rescue, along with Port of Portland Police, who responded to the scene quickly to provide her medical treatment.
Cunningham said Bernice didn’t decline the help, and it wasn’t the first time Bernice had used the gate-to-gate services before.
Once a year, for the past 3 years, Bernice had made the round trip from Spokane to Maui to spend a month with her family. Each time, the lawsuit said, she used the gate-to-gate service. She even used it on the flight to Maui. But on the way back, at PDX, Cunningham said Bernice was given a wheelchair and left.
“They got her off the plane, placed her in her wheelchair and then abandoned her,” Cunningham said. “Not only did the family request this service, but they went above and beyond that and confirmed 3 subsequent times that the service would be provided.”
Alone in an unfamiliar setting wasn’t good for a woman who lived with seeing, hearing and mental impairments, according to the lawsuit. Surveillance video shows Bernice moving alone throughout the airport. At one point, she went the wrong direction toward the security checkpoint. Cunningham said she also stopped at a store, looking for her gate.
Then, surveillance video shows Bernice approach the entrance to an escalator. Cunningham said she believed she was getting on an elevator.
“If you watch the video slowly, at the last second, she realizes, ‘uh oh, this isn’t the elevator,’” Cunningham said, “and tries to back up but by then her wheel catches and she goes face first down the escalator.”
Down approximately 21 escalator steps before she came to rest with the wheelchair still on top of her. She suffered a lengthy list of injuries and sent to the hospital. Two of Bernice’s daughters got Alaska Airlines flights to Portland to meet their mother at the hospital the next day.
“The first comment from the family was ‘Where in the hell is the escort?’” Cunningham said.
Eventually, Bernice returned to Spokane, but the 3 months between the accident and her death weren’t easy on her or the family, according to the lawsuit. The family said Bernice was in constant pain and that she couldn’t sleep or eat. They said she became depressed and felt like she was a burden to her family because she required all-day, around-the-clock attention.
Then, the swelling and pain in her right Achilles Tendon, an injury suffered in the PDX fall, got worse. It was described as a “non-healing wound” the lawsuit said.
“Because she’s diabetic, it’s hard for those wounds to recover,” Cunningham said.
Bernice’s right leg below the knee was removed on Sept. 19. Her blood pressure never fully recovered from the surgery. She died the next day. From June 7 to Sept. 20 — the date of the accident to her ultimate death — Bernice accrued almost $300,000 in medical bills, according to the lawsuit.
Cunningham called the entire situation “horrific.”
“That’s something that should never have happened,” he said.
“If they just provided the service Bernice Kekona would be here today.”