LITTLE ROCK Nancy Chu became hysterical three times Tuesday, giving a federal jury a first-hand look at her emotional state as she testified about what she experienced when American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed in Little Rock -- and what has been wrong with her life since.
In the sixth day of her damages trial against the airline, Chu hiccupped answers and buried her face in tissues, often sobbing, "It's not fair," as she answered questions about her inadequacies as a sales assistant in a stock brokerage firm after the crash.
Her attorney, Frank Branson, tried three times to bring up the night of the crash, June 1, 1999, before the Little Rock woman could find the composure to tell her story. Twice, the jury had to be excused so Chu could stop crying.
Chu spoke as if she were in a trance, her voice pitching high and fast, then suddenly low in a cadence that grew faster and faster. The jury seemed to tense as her story crescendoed.
Flight 1420 landed in a thunderstorm 10 minutes before midnight. Chu was in seat 16A in the row just ahead of where the plane broke in two.
"I had a window seat. I could see the left markers, the lines on the runway. We were not stopping. I knew something was wrong. I could see the grass. I said to myself, 'If we get to that far line we're dead.' I knew something was wrong. I just knew we were going to die.
" ... We crossed the line. I said, 'S***, we're gonna die,' and I knew right then and there I was never gonna see tomorrrow and all I could see was grass. Oh no, Oh no. All I know is we started to spin.
"I remember kicking and shoving and pushing -- whatever it was, it was soft. it must have been my seatmate." Her seatmate was Susie Kroencke of Russellville.
"I could hear my seat belt unbuckle; I could hear the snap of it. It looked like a tornado had come down inside the whole airplane. The plane was just everywhere."
Chu said she felt heat at her back and saw fire outside her window. At first she was frozen, unable to move. Then she began to crawl to a hole, a rip in the fuselage four rows up and across the aisle.
"I'm a short person and the seats came up to my chest. I was in a cubbyhole and I had to pull myself up. I crawled and did a flip and climbed to that crack.
" ... There was a woman stuck there and she couldn't get out. Someone, a man, told me to push. I had taken Tae Bo for six months and I know how strong my punches are but I didn't want to hurt her."
Chu tried to push gently, but when Central High math teacher Phyliss Caruth did not budge, Chu grabbed her buttocks and pushed her out to a 10-foot fall. Chu followed, landing on her back near Caruth. She and a few other survivors felt their way along the ground, then ran to a haystack, seeking shelter from the hail. She could hear Wayne McDaniel calling for help on a cell phone.
"I was able to walk and I was gonna go back to the plane to see if I could help, but someone came up and said, 'Can someone help my daughter?' The girl's foot was touching mine, so I said, 'Sir, I'll take her. Your daughter's in good hands.'"
The man, Charlie Fuller, left in search of help and his wife, Cindy, to tell her he had found their middle child, Rachel.
Chu said she knelt down to talk to Rachel, who was 14. "I told her my goal was to keep her alive until help got there." She offered to hold Rachel's burnt hands, but Rachel said no.
"I could tell she had burns on her face. I could tell she had braces on. I could tell she had dark hair and eyes. She was in pain. A lot of pain. I asked her again. 'Are you sure you don't want me to hold your hands?'"
This time Rachel said yes.
"But her hands were burned, and her skin just peeled off."
Chu broke down for the second time, nearly hyperventilating.
American's corporate attorney, Doug Cotton, was watching from the public gallery. As Chu told Rachel's story, he lowered his head and grimaced. In two other lawsuit trials, the particulars of how Rachel suffered were not allowed into evidence.
After more than two weeks in the hospital, Rachel, the last of 11 to die, died June 16 as doctors were amputating her right leg.
Chu attended the funeral, accompanied by an American Airlines employee, Jim Struthers, who had been assigned to tend to her needs. By then she and Struthers had begun a sexual relationship that would last eight months.
Struthers, testifying by videotape, said Chu initiated the affair. Chu said Tuesday that she could not recall who began the romance.
She said she was happy at times with Struthers, but as their relationship progressed, she felt more and more anxious about him. "I thought I could handle dating him, but he kept reminding me of American Airlines."
Chu testified that she has been plagued by nightmares since the crash -- one had Struthers stalking her -- and that when it storms, she grabs a teddy bear, flashlight, pillow and religious materials and beds down in the hallway.
Chu, who took medical leave from her job at Morgan Keegan last June, said her finances are in a mess now and her father has loaned her $17,000 to pay her bills.
Once she was so trusted with money that she handled multimillion-dollar brokerage accounts. Now, she estimated, she has bounced 40 to 50 personal checks in the last six months.
Once the jury had left the room, one of American's attorneys, Steve Schoettmer, asked Judge Henry Woods to allow him access to all of Chu's financial records since the crash. Woods refused.
"I'm not going to let you go on a fishing expedition on her private finances," Woods said. He would allow Schoettmer access only to the bounced checks.
"But, judge, they brought it up, and they've represented to the jury that she's broke and living off her parents, and she's got money," Schoettmer said.
"It doesn't matter if she's a millionaire or a pauper," Woods said. "It has no relevance to the issues" of Chu's claims that American has injured her for life.
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