Joy Anderson can’t shake one thought: If she had only turned around, her mother might still be alive.
Victoria Kong, 83, had made the trip to Barbados and back at least 10 times before, but when she walked off American Airlines Flight 1094 last Friday at Reagan National Airport, her mind apparently was fogged by dementia-like confusion.
The Gaithersburg woman strode past the gate at 4 p.m., down an escalator and to the baggage claim area, where Anderson eagerly waited with hair freshly styled for the reunion. She had bought a new cardigan to keep her mother warm.
But Kong didn’t stop. She walked through baggage claim while Anderson was faced in a different direction. By 4:12 p.m., the family said, surveillance video showed Kong leaving through a door, never to return.
The brush was one of an improbable series of missed connections and miscommunications that would set off a massive search for the woman and ultimately lead to her death, huddled in a heavily wooded area just north of the airport in chilly weather.
“I’m devastated,” Anderson said. “I’m just torn to pieces by the stupidity. It could have been avoided. The way she died, no one deserves to die like that.”
Kong’s family said she had been experiencing memory loss and confusion since her husband died last year but had never wandered off before and seemed to be sharp the morning of her flight.
Kong had been in Barbados for two months visiting two of her children. Family said Kong’s son dropped her off at the airport in Barbados for the 7:15 a.m. flight Friday.
“My grandmother repeated back my uncle’s cellphone number to him at the airport,” said Alexandria Anderson, Kong’s granddaughter. “She said she would be fine.”
And she was, at first.
Kong’s family had arranged for wheelchair service with American Airlines, and an agent helped Kong get to her flight. Relatives said they had requested American take Kong directly to and from her seat, but the airline said the family requested only service to the gate — a detail that would later prove tragic.
The first leg of Kong’s journey was uneventful. Anderson said her mother landed in Miami and then boarded Flight 1094 to National with the help of another American Airlines agent. Surveillance footage showed that she was one of the first passengers to deplane at 4 p.m.
Family members said Kong walked past an American Airlines agent sent to escort her by wheelchair to baggage claim. The agent had a small electronic sign with Kong’s name on it, but the family surmises Kong didn’t see it or was confused about who was picking her up.
Downstairs, Joy Anderson had no idea what was going on. She was ecstatic to be getting her mother back. The family had renovated Kong’s room and outfitted her shower with handrails because she was having trouble moving around. A brunch reservation had been made for Mother’s Day.
Family members had also planned to take her to a doctor to be evaluated for her cognitive problems, which they worried were quickly growing worse.
Relatives described Kong as generous and religious. They said she had been orphaned as a child in Guyana and had helped raise some of her siblings. She was a teacher there before moving to the United States, where she became a citizen. She loved to cook.
Outside the airport, Kong showed up on surveillance video a handful of times.
Airport authorities said she is seen getting out of a taxi, perhaps having gotten in just before off camera. She is seen talking with people and sitting calmly on a bench. Authorities said that she was not visibly in distress or disoriented.
Meanwhile, Anderson waited inside. Luggage from Flight 1094 snaked around the carousel, and passengers who had requested wheelchair service began to arrive. Anderson grew concerned.
Anderson said that she stopped in an American Airlines office. An agent said that her mother was still at the gate, so she waited some more, she said. She visited a second American office and had her mother paged. She inquired at a ticketing counter. Anderson said that she was falsely told at one point that an agent was with her mother in a bathroom. She called an 800 number for American.
“Please help me find my mom,” Anderson said she pleaded. “I’m screaming mad right now.”
American Airlines officials said that they never told Anderson her mother was in their custody. In a statement Wednesday, the airline said that it responded with “appropriate care and concern to Ms. Kong’s family.”
By 6 p.m., Anderson went to airport police.
In an interview Wednesday, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Chief Stephen L. Holl said that officers began looking at surveillance tapes and searching the terminals, including the baggage claim area and restrooms.
It would be the start of a three-day, coordinated search by six agencies that employed a helicopter, a boat, volunteers and tracking dogs.
By 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Anderson said, authorities discovered a key clue. A surveillance camera on the outer edge of the airport showed Kong heading north on the Mount Vernon Trail. Holl said searchers swept areas north and south of the airport.
On Sunday, tracking dogs, who had sniffed Kong’s luggage, tracked her scent to part of Roosevelt Island, more than four miles north of the airport. The dogs, Holl said, “found a strong presence of her odor” at the island. A SWAT team combed part of the marshy 88-acre island, a boat plied the water and the helicopter used an infrared sensor to scan for a warm body.
On Monday, two teams searched the island while another worked its way back toward the airport. At about 2 p.m., rescuers found Kong’s body in a grove of trees just north of the airport, near Gravelly Point.
The area where she was found is just off the walking path where it drops off at a steep angle into an area of growth and leaves. It is about 200 yards from the airport property. “If she was lying down in an area of heavy leaves or growth, hundreds of people could have passed by and didn’t see her,” Holl said.
Family members said that Kong was in the long flower-print dress she wore on the flight. She had her purse, and there were no signs of foul play.
U.S. Park Police are waiting for an official cause of death, but relatives said that it appears Kong died of exposure.
Susan Kudla Finn, president of the Alzheimer’s Association’s National Capital Area Chapter, said air travel can be especially difficult for those with dementia.
“This disease is dynamic,” Finn said. “What you see today is not necessarily what you see tomorrow. When you add a new environment, that can be very stressful.”
She recommended that people have an elderly relative with symptoms be evaluated by a doctor before travel. If there are concerns about the person’s ability to navigate a trip, Finn recommended having him or her go with a companion.
The Alzheimer’s Association has a help line that can offer travel tips, and many airlines have programs to help elderly travelers.
Kong’s family is now planning her funeral. On Wednesday, Alexandria Anderson said she still had the cardigan that Kong was to receive when she got off the plane.
“We only anticipated she would be a little slower but would still be Grandma,” Anderson said.