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On burning plane, ‘there was no one there to help,’ says a passenger suing airline

In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Friday. Pilots on Flight 383 bound for Miami reported an engine-related mechanical issue, according to an airline spokeswoman.
In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Friday. Pilots on Flight 383 bound for Miami reported an engine-related mechanical issue, according to an airline spokeswoman. AP

A business trip behind her, Sarah Ahmed Furno was zooming down the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport late last month on an American Airlines flight back to Miami. Across the aisle, her co-worker made the sign of the cross with her fingers as the plane prepared for takeoff.

“Oh s---,” Ahmed Furno said under her breath, overcome with a bad premonition.

Seconds later, the right wall of the plane, directly across the aisle from her, burst into flames.

“Out of maybe five of the windows you can see fire,” said Ahmed Furno, who lives in Hollywood. “The plane is full throttle for takeoff and everyone from the right side of the plane jumps on to us.”

The pilots manage to stop the plane. Then the stampede follows.

Gray smoke is followed by black smoke seeping into the cabin as panicked passengers try to keep away from the glowing orange wall of heat melting the windows along the right rear side of the Boeing 767. The collective thought: The plane could explode any minute.

“People couldn’t breathe. The oxygen mask did not fall. There was no one on the loud speaker,” Ahmed Furno said. “In all that chaos, there was no one there to help.”

In all that chaos, there was no one there to help.

Sarah Ahmed Furno, passenger on American Airlines Flight 383

The crew’s inability to keep order is among the allegations that Ahmed Furno and 17 other passengers, including two more from South Florida, are claiming in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday against the airline, Boeing and GE. It alleges that American Airlines was negligent in supervising and directing the evacuation of the aircraft.

The lawsuit, filed in Illinois circuit court, also alleges that the airline failed to maintain, service, inspect and repair the aircraft appropriately enough to avoid the incident.

In a response emailed to the Miami Herald, the airline responded: “We’re proud of our pilots, flight attendants and other team members who responded quickly to take care of our customers under very challenging circumstances. American is actively participating in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation and will continue to work with the NTSB and the other parties to the investigation of this event.”

The Oct. 28 flight from Chicago to Miami suffered an engine failure that led to the fire. Footage from the scene shows passengers quickly evacuating on slides on the front and rear left side of the plane and running into a grassy area while smoke and fire rise in the background. The plane’s right wing can be seen melting and drooping.

About 20 of the 170 passengers and crew on Flight 383 suffered minor injuries, officials said.

The suit also claims GE, the engine’s manufacturer, sold the defective engine to Boeing, which was negligent in “designing, manufacturing, assembling, and selling the accident aircraft so as not to cause injury to plaintiffs.”

I don’t know what it’s triggered in me but I’m just not a good place emotionally.

Sarah Ahmed Furno, passenger on American Airlines Flight 383

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs suffered “personal and bodily injuries, both physical and psychological in nature” and either have or will sustain “future medical bills, lost earnings, disability, disfigurement, and pain and suffering and emotional distress,” as a result of the accident.

The episode left Ahmed Furno, who is an avid flier with six passports, feeling depressed.

“It’s affecting everything. I don’t want to work, I’m not in a good place with my husband,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s triggered in me but I’m just not a good place emotionally.”

She and the other plaintiffs are represented by Chicago-based Wisner Law Firm, which focuses solely on representing people injured or killed in aviation accidents. The firm recently resolved a similar case for an undisclosed amount involving more than 100 passengers and crew on a September 2015 British Airways flight. Like the Chicago to Miami flight, the British Airways flight involved a faulty GE engine on a Boeing plane that failed and caught fire at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.

“GE and Boeing and American, as well, need to take a harder look at this problem because I’m concerned it’s a recurring problem,” said Floyd Wisner, principal at the law firm. “It’s not just a rare occurrence.”

GE and Boeing and American, as well, need to take a harder look at this problem because I’m concerned it’s a recurring problem.

Floyd Wisner, principal at Wisner Law Firm

The law firm expects to add other passengers as plaintiffs, as well as other parties, such as material suppliers or component manufactures, as defendants if certain parts of the engine are found as contributing to the fire.

On Thursday, Ahmed Furno will face her first flight since the fire. The national account manager for uniform company Cintas has another business trip, to North Carolina and South Carolina. It’s also on American Airlines.

But this time, she will be going alone.

“I don’t want to die alone ... without my husband and my kids,” Ahmed Furno said. “I don’t know what I’m going to be like on Thursday morning when I have to get on for this flight.”

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