In the moments after their plane crashed, Melissa Craft says she twisted in her seat to make sure she wasn’t paralyzed, while Emily Pellegrini struggled frantically with a seat belt that wouldn’t budge.
On Monday, Craft and Pellegrini, both passengers of the Houston-bound Continental Airlines flight that veered off a runway in Denver last month, became the first people to sue Continental over the crash.
The civil suit, filed in state district court in Houston, alleges that the airline and the two pilots on board Flight 1404 were negligent in aborting a troubled takeoff and crashing into a nearby ravine a few days before Christmas.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for physical and emotional suffering related to the crash.
Attorney Jason Gibson, who represents both women, said he had spoken to other passengers and plans to file more lawsuits related to the crash.
Continental officials said the lawsuit was hasty since federal investigators still haven’t concluded what caused the crash.
“Since the facts of the accident are still being investigated, the allegations are premature,” said Continental spokeswoman Julie King. “We’re prepared to defend the company’s actions and those of our crew.”
Gibson says he believes he has a strong case regardless of the exact cause.
“Continental knows what happened already,” he said. “It’s clear it was not wind shear. No other planes or pilots had any issues that day in the same position. It was pilot error, mechanical issues, or a combination of both, and either way Continental is responsible.”
The 737 had just reached takeoff speed on Dec. 20 when a violent pounding shook the cabin. Pilots told investigators they were having trouble keeping the plane moving in a straight line. It veered off the runway, bounced through a field and then jolted to a stop in a ravine, its right wing engulfed in flames. All 115 people on board escaped from the plane before the fire consumed the cabin.
Craft said it felt like the plane’s wheels left the ground briefly before touching back down and then speeding off the runway. The 27-year-old Houston financial recruiter, who went to Denver with a friend on her first ski trip, sat in a window seat in the last row of the plane.
The plane lurched over bumpy ground, coming down hard three times before sliding to a stop in the ravine. The first bump shook Craft in her seat, the second one was painful and the third convinced her she had broken her back.
“At one point I looked at my friend and I said, ‘Are we going to die?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Just hold on.’”
Finally the plane stopped. Craft watched the fire burn on the wing and felt the cabin heating up.
“People were saying ‘Get off the plane! It’s going to blow!’ ” she recalled. “Even the pilots said it should have blown up. It burned so fast, and we had a full tank of fuel.”
Pellegrini, a 21-year-old college student who was on her way home to Pearland for the holidays, did not return phone calls Monday. The day after the crash, her parents said she was unhurt. But like everyone on board, Gibson said, she was traumatized by the belief that she was about to die in the plane.
Her distress was heightened when she couldn’t unbuckle her seat belt, her attorney said.
“I don’t know how long she struggled,” he said. “To her, I’m sure, it seemed like a lifetime.”
Both Craft and Pellegrini, who do not know each other, told Gibson they were unsatisfied with the way Continental treated them after the crash. Craft lost expensive ski gear and jewelry the airline has not compensated her for; Pellegrini was given money to replace her lost belongings, but Continental sent an employee to supervise her shopping, Gibson said.
“Continental’s not doing what it should be doing,” he said. “It should be bending over backwards to care for its customers.”
“We’re not seeking a windfall. We just want Continental to pay for their losses, their medical care, any lost wages and psychological care,” he said.
Damages could change depending on what, if any, fault he can prove.
“If we find out Continental was aware of an issue and made the decision to try to take off anyway, that’s going to be a huge deal,” he said. “Then we’d be talking about a lot.”