Spokane family sues Alaska Airlines for mother's escalator fall

SPOKANE, Wash. - A Spokane family wants Alaska Airlines and an Alaska Airlines contractor to pay for the airport accident they say killed their 75-year old mother.

Bernice Kekona, a diabetic widow, was traveling back from visiting her family in Hawaii in June.

Records show her family arranged for Alaska Airlines to transport Kekona from gate to gate and that they confirmed that transportation on multiple occasions. 

Workers from Huntleigh, USA got Kekona off the plane and into her wheelchair, but then she was left alone. Surveillance video from Portland International Airport shows Kekona moving through the airport, even approaching the TSA security area in an attempt to find her gate.

Eventually, she gets confused and ends up at the top of the airport escalator. Kekona later told paramedics she thought she was getting on the elevator, but by the time she realized her mistake, her wheel was caught and she went tumbling down the 21 steps of the moving escalator. 

Surveillance video shows Kekona falling, still strapped into the chair. One man jumps over from the up side of the escalator to try and stop the fall. It takes several men more than a minute to get the chair – and, Kekona – upright.

Her family in Spokane, expecting their mother to arrive home in a couple of hours, got a call from the airport instead.

“They pretty much told me they’re taking my mom to the hospital because she was at the bottom of the escalator,” explained Kekona’s daughter Darlene Bloyed. “I yelled at the phone – ‘what the hell is she doing at the bottom of the escalator?’”

Kekona suffered multiple injuries in the fall, including escalator teeth marks on her face and trauma to her head and chest. But, it was one wound that her family says ended up killing her. She suffered a cut to her Achilles tendon that, despite thousands of dollars in medical care, never healed.

“She’d lay in bed screaming, banging on the walls, pounding on her other [prothstetic] leg to take away the pain,” said Kekona’s granddaughter Desiree Kekahuna.

In September, the wound went septic. Doctors amputated the leg and Kekona died the next day.

Now, her family is suing Alaska Airlines and that subcontractor for not providing the gate-to-gate transportation for which they arranged.

“We’re hoping that Alaska steps up to the plate,” said attorney Brook Cunningham. “They were supposed to provide her a service. She’s a vulnerable adult, they requested the service as they were supposed to do under the law and Alaska didn’t provide the service. What happened was the tragic death of Bernice Kekona way too early in life.” 

The family’s attorneys point to the federal Air Carrier Access Act, which lays out protections for disabled passengers. It says “airlines are required to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections.” 

Records show the family arranged for Alaska Airlines to “assist to and from gates at all points.”
Huntleigh, USA said it can’t comment yet because it has not seen the lawsuit filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court.

Alaska Airlines did respond to our request for comment with this statement: 

“We're heartbroken by this tragic and disturbing incident. 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 into the concourse. Once in the concourse, 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."

Kekona’s family knows a lawsuit won’t bring their mother back, but they hope for accountability and change so that what happened to their mother and grandmother doesn’t happen to anyone else. 
“I want them to make it right,” said Kekona’s granddaughter Danielle Kekahuna. “It’s not gonna bring her back, but someone needs to own up. Someone needs to take responsibility.” 

Thursday, Alaska Airlines emailed kxly4 to add this to the company's statement: "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 check any of the boxes for a passenger with “Blind/low vision,” “Deaf/hard of hearing,” or “Other special needs (i.e., developmental or intellectual disability, senior/elderly).” So, there was no indication in the reservation that Ms. Kekona had cognitive, visual, or auditory impairments."