MIAMI (VINnews/Sandy Eller) – The mother of an Orthodox Jewish woman who was paralyzed after being thrown out of her wheelchair while attempting to board a Southwest flight 11 months ago is demanding justice for her daughter, who passed away nearly two weeks ago.
As previously reported on VIN News, Gaby Assouline was on her way to Denver on February 25th, 2022 when the incident occurred.
Ms. Assouline was afflicted with a rare musculoskeletal condition known as FOP that made it difficult for her to walk long distances, but was fully ambulatory and led a full life, pursuing a degree in business and advocating for her fellow FOP sufferers.
Mother Sandra Assouline told VIN News that Gaby did considerable research when planning the trip to Denver to visit her older sister Ariella, choosing Southwest because she felt that they were more accommodating of special needs passengers.
“Gaby wanted to be like anyone else who could travel,” said Mrs. Assouline. “She contacted them and she did everything, planning out the whole trip and making sure they knew what she was bringing.”
Ms. Assouline had never flown alone before and her mother secured a buddy pass to take her through the airport until the gate.
Markings on the 24 year old’s boarding pass indicated that she was in need of assistance, and according to family lawyer Robert Solomon, federal law mandated that Southwest was required to provide Ms. Assouline with help.
But a lawsuit filed by the Assouline family in July alleged that Southwest and its contractors refused Ms. Assouline’s request for assistance boarding the plane and failed to provide her with help, instructions or warnings about potential hazards or dangers on the jet bridge. The lawsuit also charged Southwest with failing to provide its staff with adequate training to accommodate travelers with disabilities.
After saying goodbye to her daughter at the gate, Mrs. Assouline waited to receive a text or a selfie indicating that she was safely in her seat on the plane, a message that never came.
Instead, Mrs. Assouline received a phone call from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office telling her that daughter had fallen in the airport, with emergency personnel starting CPR in an attempt to save Ms. Assouline’s life after she was ejected from her wheelchair by a reportedly faulty jet bridge and suffered cardiac arrest.
Ms. Assouline was taken to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale and Mrs. Assouline and her husband Felix learned over the next few days that their daughter had fallen on her head and had fractured her C2 vertebrae, resulting in a severe spinal cord injury that left her a quadriplegic.
Calls for Tehillim for Chaya Gabrielle Messouda bat Sarah rang out in their North Miami Beach community and the Assoulines launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for their daughter’s medical care that was filled with heart wrenching posts detailing how Gaby, who lost her ability to speak, would mouth the words “I want to go home” and “Please don’t leave me.”
Ms. Assouline remained in the hospital for 11 months, with her parents making extensive renovations to their home in preparation for her eventual return.
“The hospital had directed us to get ready and we had the nursing staff arranged,” said Mrs. Assouline. “We borrowed money to make our house secure for her – putting in a generator and proper outlets and other necessary items – and out of the blue in early January they told us that there were complications and that she wasn’t coming home.”
A January 9th post by Mr. Assouline called on his daughter’s friends and family to rally for her recovery saying, “Please pray that Hashem will heal her quickly and make her better than before, that she will be able to walk, and use all of her limbs, to talk in that beautiful melodic voice of hers, to be able to marry and have children and be in her own home.”
Ms. Assoulines’s condition continued to deteriorate and her family was at her bedside as her condition worsened on January 22nd. Mr. Assouline fought through tears as he recited Shema with his daughter as she began slipping away.
“She was in a coma but she could still hear,” said Mrs. Assouline. “She took her last breath as he said ‘emet,’ the last word of Shema.”
Multiple nurses from Broward Health’s Medical Center attended Ms. Assouline’s January 23rd funeral, paying their respects to the young woman who had impressed them during her long hospital stay with her warm smile and her love of people.
She was laid to rest at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Miami and Mrs. Assouline is inspired knowing how many good deeds her daughter inspired during her hospitalization as people attempted to generate heavenly merits on her behalf.
She credited Matthew Paret of the Emunah Mondays Instagram group for galvanizing an entire community of young adults around Gaby, organizing carpools and bringing streams of visitors to her bedside to stave off feelings of isolation.
Mrs. Assouline recalled her daughter as someone who was incredibly family oriented and often wondered if her disability might prevent her from finding a husband.
“I would tell her ‘Don’t worry, Hashem will find a husband for you,’” said Mrs. Assouline. “But now our daughter is gone and I know where she is – she’s with Hashem – and she is whole and she can talk and she can sing. But unfortunately, she is out of my house and she is buried with just a little tag until we can get a matzeva for her.”
Mrs. Assouline’s grief is tinged with rage and the lawsuit that the family filed in July that had originally focused on damages to cover the cost of her medical care will now be focused on her death.
“Gaby was not incapacitated and did not need a chaperone,” said Mrs. Assouline. “She was of sound mind and body and had the right to enjoy flying and whatever other people do. She entrusted Southwest to get her from point A to point B – something we all do – and that didn’t happen.”
Southwest issued a statement saying, “Southwest offers its sincere condolences to Ms. Assouline’s family, friends and all whose lives she touched. We have a more than 51 year commitment to caring for our People and Customers and remain engaged with the parties involved.”
Asked if any changes have been made to their jet bridges in response to the accident or if its staff was receiving further training to assist passengers in wheelchairs Southwest media spokesperson Tiffany Valdez responded that the airline had nothing additional to share at this time. According to Solomon, the airline has repeatedly denied the allegations in the lawsuit, shifting the blame onto Ms. Assouline.
“Now they are saying that Gaby refused help, when she isn’t here to speak for herself,” said Solomon. “It’s disheartening.”
Solomon dismissed statements by Southwest alleging that they have been working with the Assouline family saying, “If they consider fighting with us working with us, then that’s what it is. They have put resistance up every step of the way.”
According to a CBS News report (cbsn.ws/3X1kXv5) jet bridges have been blamed for multiple accidents, with tripping hazards topping the list. Multiple instances of jet bridge collapses have been reported, including one in 2018 that inured six people and an airport maintenance worker died in 2019 when a jet bridge tire exploded in workshop at John Wayne Airport in California.
“All of the airlines know jet bridges are a problem,” said Solomon, who noted that he has been contacted regarding other cases of jet bridge injuries. “There are cases all over the country with not a single warning posted for passengers boarding a plane. They know about this and there are only warning signs for passengers on the way up.”
Solomon is hopeful that the Jewish community will rally around the Assouline family, which is grieving their loss and facing millions of dollars in medical bills as well as the cost of renovations to facilitate Ms. Assouline’s return home.
He hopes that going public with their story will bring the Assoulines some sense of closure, even as they move ahead in their ongoing legal battle with Southwest, who they hold accountable for their daughter’s death.
“We can’t bring Gaby back, but when you break the rules, there are monetary consequences, that’s how civil suits work in this country,” said Solomon. “This family’s life has been turned upside down and we want to make sure that no one ever goes through anything like this and that Southwest is held accountable for killing someone.”
“They killed my daughter,” added Mrs. Assouline. “Even though it took 11 months, they killed my daughter.”
Contributions to the Assouline’s crowdfunding campaign can be made online at bit.ly/3Y1cUzz