The family of an elderly Gaithersburg woman who wandered out of Reagan National Airport and was found dead three days later is frustrated and bewildered by what happened to her.
Victoria Kong’s body was found Monday on Gravelly Point, three days after she arrived at Reagan National Airport on an American Airlines flight from Barbados — and then disappeared.
“It’s so unexpected, so bizarre, so unnecessary — it’s made an unexpected death of a close family member so much harder to accept,” said Joy Anderson, Kong’s daughter, on Tuesday.
Kong, 83, arrived in D.C. on a flight from Barbados (which had a connection at Miami) at around 4 p.m., Anderson said.
The family says that American Airlines failed to provide Kong with the necessary assistance once she arrived in Washington, D.C.
“When I made reservation, I chose wheelchair assistance,” Anderson said. It was something she and her family members did routinely when her mother traveled, she said. “I made it clear I wanted her to be assisted to her seat,” Anderson said. Normally her mother would be escorted from her seat to the baggage claim area, Anderson said.
Everything went smoothly on the trip until Kong arrived in D.C., Anderson said. There her mother wasn’t picked up in a wheelchair.
“Instead of coming to luggage claim, she walked out,” Anderson said. Anderson said her mother had grown forgetful recently, though she was otherwise extremely healthy. “She was not on one medicine,” she said.
Hours later, as police were trying to find her mother, they found video footage of her walking directly out of the airport at around 4:10 p.m., Anderson said.
She began asking airport security personnel and officials for information about her mother.
She said that she asked for help from American Airlines officials, from someone working at an information booth, and from Transportation Security Administration officials. Along the way, she said, American Airlines officials told her that her mother was still at the gate.
“They were just brushing me off – [telling me] they have her, that wheelchair people come last,” she said.
Kong’s granddaughter, Alexandria Anderson said that footage showed her grandmother walking past the wheelchair and her name, which was displayed on a digital screen.
“Nobody told her at her seat that a wheelchair was waiting,” Alexandria said, adding that Kong could have missed it because she was tired or had forgotten. She said that Kong had left Barbados on a flight at around 7:15 a.m. that Friday. The length of the trip was one reason they asked for the wheelchair assistance, she said.
Joy Anderson called the number she had used to set up the wheelchair service with her mother, and was told that agents were helping her mother in the lavatory.
“That was all fiction,” she said.
Finally, Anderson went to police.
They began scouring video footage, and found clips of her walking out of the gate, out of the airport into a taxi, where she sat momentarily, before walking off again.
“If they hadn’t told me they had her inside, I would have seen her,” Anderson said.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of Ms. Kong’s death and our thoughts are with her family. We will continue to offer our cooperation to authorities,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Stacey Frantz, in a statement. The airline did not provide specific details about Kong’s death, but said, “When customers book tickets and request special assistance, our team of specialists trained in compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act proactively reach out to our customers to understand what type of assistance may be required.”
“In this case, American was asked to provide mobility assistance, but we received no indication that Ms. Kong suffered from any form of cognitive disability, Frantz said, in the statement.
“If we learn that a customer has a cognitive disability, our agents are trained to advise that we do not provide supervision of passengers and a companion is necessary to ensure safe travel,” she said.
Besides the public statements that American Airlines has put out about her mother’s death, she said the family has not yet been contacted.
The family was still waiting for Kong’s luggage Tuesday afternoon, she said.
On Monday, Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said that police had used K-9 units to track her scent to Roosevelt Island, a few miles north of the airport.
A U.S. Park Police spokesman said that searchers found Kong’s body around 2 p.m., Monday. Her body was located just north of the airport and south of Gravelly Point, off the George Washington Parkway, in a wooded area about 30 feet from the bike trail, according to a statement from Park Police.
Rescue personnel had searched the shore line, and scoured the area from the air with an aerial thermal search from a U.S. Park Police helicopter.
Search and rescue volunteers trained to operate in back-country and ex-urban environments were looking for her over the weekend, but had been unsuccessful, he said.
Officials have not yet released a cause of death, but Anderson said that one of the detectives investigating her mother’s death told her that it appeared Kong died of exposure.
Joy Anderson said her mother, a devout Roman-Catholic, read religious texts and entertained friends at home. She didn’t drive.
Alexandria said that her grandmother was of Portuguese, Indian, and Chinese descent, and cooked a chicken curry that was “famous.”
Kong’s husband Lloyd died less than a year ago, Joy Anderson said. Her mother had been a homemaker, performed office work, and taught kindergarten students, she said.
Her death has left family members and friends in the United States and Barbados in shock, she said.
“In Barbados, the house is full of people reading the news ... they’re just devastated,” Anderson said.
They have not yet scheduled a funeral, because family members will have to travel from different parts of the United States and Barbados.
“I’m just coming out of the fog,” Anderson said.