Thursday, January 21, 1999

Does Mother Nature need a snowsuit?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes a natural disaster brings out the best in us.

        Sometimes not.

        Timothy and Susan Koczara appeared on NBC's Today Show on Tuesday to tell of their ordeal in this month's crippling snowstorm. At least 59 deaths and hundreds of injuries were blamed on the weather, which piled enough snow on us to shut down railroads, highways and airports.

Sincerely ticked off
        The Koczaras are not dead or injured, but they are sincerely ticked off and frightfully inconvenienced.

        They were stuck for nearly eight hours on a runway at Detroit Metropolitan Airport upon their return from a vacation in St. Martin. There they were, probably sunburned and itching to get home to have their photographs developed, when Mother Nature dumped 12 inches of snow on Detroit.

        “It was very taxing,” Mrs. Koczara said.

        So, of course, someone on the plane began circulating a sign-up sheet to passengers so they could be contacted later by an attorney. That is the American way.

        On Jan. 7, a class-action lawsuit including the Koczaras as plaintiffs was filed in the Wayne County Circuit Court against Wayne County, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Northwest Airlines.

        Mother Nature escaped litigation.

        Plaintiffs' attorney A. Tony Taweel would not say exactly how much money was at stake, only that it is “in excess of $25,000.” Well, naturally. We wouldn't expect an attorney to clear his throat for anything less than that.

        He says about 200 people have signed up for representation. “There were 30 planes and 6,000 people involved,” he says. The level of damages, he says, will be determined at a later date.

Wacky warning labels
        The airline has sent a letter of apology and free round-trip tickets to everybody delayed on a Northwest plane. Not good enough.

        “We would like to hopefully never have this happen again,” Mr. Koczara said.

        Perhaps a warning label: “This plane might be delayed by a natural disaster.”

        Northwest could be next year's winner of the Annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. This year's winner was “Remove your child before folding the baby stroller.”

        Runners-up were a sleeping pill prescription warning that the drug might cause sleepiness, a fireplace lighter caution against using the device near a fire and a laser-printer cartridge warning people not to eat the toner.

        “Wacky warnings are a sign of our lawsuit-happy times,” said Robert B. Dorigo Jones, who oversees the contest. And a road map for greed.

        The Koczaras were trapped aboard an airplane that was 3 miles from the terminal. There was no food or water. Not even peanuts. The toilets were full, and Mr. Koczara said people were urinating in cups. But at least they were safe. They appeared untraumatized on national television. No frostbite. No broken hips. No signs of starvation.

        Wind chill was 30 degrees below zero outside their plane. The airport was digging out from the biggest snowfall in a single day in 25 years. “It was a disaster,” says Michael Conway, director of public information for the airport. “And I was proud of the way our people helped out.”

        Airport employees, he says, lent money to people so they could buy food. Some vendors simply gave it away. “We sent employees out in four-wheel-drive vehicles on emergency runs.” They picked up needles for a diabetic. They went out for supplies — diapers, drugs.

        “I was proud,” Mr. Conway said. “People really pitched in.”

        Meanwhile, on one Northwest Airline jet, somebody was collecting names for a lawsuit.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at