It was supposed to be a straightforward, three-hour plane ride from Minneapolis to New York.
But an American Airlines flight diverted to Baltimore by a massive East Coast storm last week morphed into a nightmarish travel experience, one woman said, after passengers were put on a bathroom-less bus to complete the last leg of their trip — only to sit on clogged roads for nearly 12 hours, ultimately ending up where they started.
That was hardly the most severe aspect of the ordeal.
For the first nine hours, the bus covered a mere 40 miles and made only one rest stop — where two of the travelers who got off in search of food were struck by an oncoming vehicle and suffered severe injuries, according to Stefani Kuo, a passenger on American Airlines flight 4664.
The injured couple, tourists from China, spoke limited English, and both were hospitalized with serious head trauma, police said.
Meanwhile, the driver of the airline-chartered bus appeared ready to leave the rest stop without checking that all passengers were onboard, Kuo said. It wasn’t until she expressed concern over the two missing Chinese passengers, whom Kuo had met on the bus when they sought out her aid, that the driver learned they had been involved in the accident, she added.
The bus eventually returned to Baltimore, nearly half a day after it had departed from there, because a closed bridge prevented it from going farther on Interstate 95, Kuo said. Even then, it fell to her to inform American Airlines that the Chinese couple had been seriously injured, she said.
“No one had told them anything about their condition or anything,” Kuo told The Washington Post Monday. “It didn’t really hit me until I got back how awful it was.”
American Airlines spokeswoman Michelle Mohr confirmed that two of its passengers were involved in an accident Friday while being transported by bus from Baltimore to New York, but declined to name the couple.
On Friday afternoon, Kuo, a recent college graduate, was trying to return home to New York when her flight was diverted to Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) after a turbulent, failed landing attempt at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Upon deplaning at BWI, she said passengers were told to board a charter bus that American Airlines said would be the only way to get back to New York, about 200 miles away.
Information about the buses was scant, as confused and weary travelers from multiple American flights jockeyed for seats, Kuo said.
“The buses were filled with flights from all over … from Detroit, from Nashville, from Minneapolis,” she said. “No one was really directing anyone.”
About two hours into the bus’s slow trip up I-95, an older Chinese couple approached Kuo: “Are you Chinese?” they asked her.
Kuo nodded and they seemed relieved. They told her they had been on a redirected flight from Nashville and were on their way to visit their son in New York. Would she mind translating what was going on? Kuo agreed.
She said the couple stayed fairly quiet throughout the trip, except to occasionally relay their whereabouts to their son.
Meanwhile, the bus trip dragged on. Traffic on the interstate had ground to a halt, in large part due to violent winds that had uprooted trees and debris, caused traffic accidents and closed multiple roadways along the eastern corridor.
To make matters worse, there were no bathrooms on the bus; anyone who needed to go was forced to run off the vehicle as it inched forward, relieve themselves on the side of the highway, then jump back on board before it moved again.
“Everyone was burned out because there were no bathrooms,” Kuo said. “Everyone was freaking out about their cellphone because we didn’t have any battery.”
The bus had departed BWI around 2:45 p.m. Friday. Just before 11 p.m., it made its first and only official rest stop in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Aberdeen, Md. By then, there was no rain or hail outside, but it was so windy and dark that she could barely see, Kuo said.
The Chinese couple accompanied Kuo to the McDonald’s but found it packed with other travelers who had been stalled by traffic conditions. They then went to an Applebee’s across the street to use the restroom but found that restaurant crowded as well.
Finally, Kuo said she would go to an adjacent ShopRite to pick up some food; the Chinese couple said they would return to the bus and wait for her there.
Kuo reached the ShopRite, only to discover it was closed. On her way back to the bus, she could make out a grim scene: Two bodies lay face down in the road, with a police car nearby. She willed herself to look away, she said, not realizing the victims were the Chinese couple she had befriended that day.
Back on board the bus, however, a terrible feeling overcame Kuo as the driver prepared to leave the parking lot without a roll call.
“I just kept looking at their seat because they never came back,” she said. Kuo said she told the driver to stop, then ran off the bus and returned to the scene she had just passed. By then, the road was empty again. The responding officer told Kuo that the victims had indeed been an older Chinese couple, and that they had been taken to a hospital with serious injuries.
Kuo gave the police officer her phone number, explained that she had only met the couple, and asked him to call her with any news.
“I wanted to make sure they were okay,” she said.
Then she boarded the bus “in hysterics.”
“The bus was confused, the bus driver was shocked. But then we left. No one contacted American Airlines,” Kuo wrote in a subsequent blog post about her experience. At this point, the bus driver had decided to turn around and return to BWI, unable to go farther on the interstate because of the closed bridge.
“When we got back to the airport, no one took care of [the Chinese couple’s] belongings,” Kuo wrote. “I picked up the backpack and carry on they had on the bus. When we got off, their checked baggage was just left on the sidewalk. No one took care of it, so I did. I took all of their belongings along with mine and went into the airport where I tried for 15 minutes to tell someone, “Two of your passengers were run over by a truck.’ ”
Cpl. Craig Gentile, the Aberdeen police officer who responded to the scene, said he was only able to identify the victims as Chinese nationals because of their passports. It took him nearly four hours to reach someone at Chinese consulates and the embassy in Washington so he could contact the couple’s next of kin — and it might have taken longer had Kuo not spoken on behalf of the couple, he said.
Representatives for the Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The driver who struck the couple stopped immediately to render aid and was not found to be impaired, Aberdeen police spokesman Will Reiber said.
“The pedestrians were struck while wearing dark clothing as they were crossing the roadway in a non-crosswalk area,” Reiber said, adding that the storm and time of the accident had led to “pretty much blackout conditions.”
Reiber said he could not release a copy of the incident report yet, but said both victims were in serious but stable condition as of Monday afternoon.
American Airlines’s Mohr said the airline occasionally charters buses to help complete trips when flying passengers is not possible, for some reason, and that “several factors” contributed to the team’s decision to charter a bus Friday during the nor’easter, including “availability of hotel rooms” and the distance. She noted the airline is not typically responsible for providing lodging when a flight is canceled or delayed because of weather.
“What we were focused on was of course getting our folks to their final destination as quickly as possible,” Mohr told The Post. “Travel ended up being a lot more difficult than anyone had anticipated, unfortunately.”
Mohr said she was not certain how the airline was notified of the accident and also said the bus company should answer questions about how the driver should have kept track of passengers. She did not name the bus company.
“What we did was we immediately deployed specially trained members of our Care Team to assist the couple and their son who came down to see them. So we’re working closely with the family to make sure they have the support and care that they need during this difficult time,” Mohr said. “As soon as we learned of this, we jumped into action.”
Kuo has contradicted the airline’s account, however, saying American would not have known about the couple’s accident had she not demanded to speak with an airline employee at BWI airport around 1 a.m. Saturday.
“He looked concerned, and he ushered me back into a room,” Kuo said. “He didn’t know what hospital they were at. … I kept saying, I have all their luggage. I can help if they need translating. … I seemed to know more than anyone else, but no one [at American] knew anything.”
Kuo said her conscience pushed her to keep calling Baltimore hospitals, until she had found where the couple had been taken. At the very least, she would deliver their bags.
“I thought, maybe I’ll just be a hassle to be around,” Kuo said.
Kuo said the airline offered to pay for a one-way taxi ride to the hospital. It was her — not a ‘Care Team’ member — who was the first to arrive, she noted. The husband recognized her right away and seemed grateful, asking if she could help translate. Kuo stayed for about 40 more minutes, as the couple waited for their son to make his way down from New York.
It wasn’t until she finally got back home to New York on Saturday afternoon — almost exactly 24 hours after she was scheduled to do so — that Kuo had time to file a complaint with the airline. An American employee called her and offered a $500 gift voucher, she said. (The amount was later raised to $700, she noted.) Kuo shared images of her email correspondence with The Post.
On Saturday night, Kuo sat down and started writing a blog post about the experience, saying she wanted to bring attention to what she calls the airline’s irresponsibility. She deleted the post Sunday out of privacy concerns for the family of the injured couple, who didn’t want their names released. But she remains “infuriated,” she said.
“Most of us have had to file complaints before American Airlines reached out to us, which is pretty atrocious,” Kuo said. “I think they’re trying to avoid it as much as they can. Because they ‘got most of us to our destination’ — but at what cost?”