Douglas C. Wielinski was alive for a period of time after Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into his Clarence Center home, a medical expert for the Wielinski family testified Thursday at a hearing on the family’s lawsuits against the airlines.
But Dr. William R. Anderson said he couldn’t say how long the 61-year-old man was alive before he died in the fire that followed the crash.
The doctor, a forensic pathologist and former medical examiner based in Ocala, Fla., who has done 6,000 to 7,000 autopsies in 30 years, said the lack of a toxicology report on Wielinski prevented him from saying how long he lived after the twin-engine turboprop crashed into his home on Long Street the night of Feb. 12, 2009, killing him and the 49 people on the plane.
“If they had done a toxicology report, I may have been able to tell how long he was alive, based on carbon monoxide levels, but unfortunately we don’t have that,” he testified via a video link from Florida.
Whether Wielinski died instantly, as the airlines contend, or suffered an excruciating death after the plane hit his house is a potentially key point in determining how much a jury might award his family.
Anderson testified that based on his review of the autopsy report, slides of Wielinski’s lung tissue, X-rays and photos from the autopsy and crash scene, Wielinski did not die immediately after the crash.
He said he noticed the victim’s lungs were heavier than normal due to edema or fluid. He said the pink fluid from Wielinski’s air sacs accumulated in his lungs before he died. He said the fluid was not the result of blood settling after death.
“Edema indicates there was blood pressure and the heart was beating,” he said. “It is not an indication of instant death.”
The doctor said the lack of soot in the victim’s airways did not mean that he was not breathing after the crash, noting that fire victims don’t always have soot in their airways.
He said he found no evidence of blunt force trauma to Wielinski’s skull that would have knocked him out or killed him.
Pointing to an X-ray of the skull, he noted heat fractures on the outer layer, which he said were caused by heat from the fire. He said the heat causes water in the brain to expand, pushing the bone in the skull outward.
If Wielinski had been hit by the plane, the bone would have been pushed inward, causing brain damage, he said, but there was no traumatic brain damage.
The hearing before State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall is being held to determine if the judge will allow Anderson and Dr. Joseph L. Burton, both medical experts for the Wielinskis, to testify at the trial, which is expected to begin next week with jury selection.
The family sued Colgan Air, which owned and operated the plane, as well as its parent, Pinnacle Airlines, and Continental Airlines, which contracted with Colgan, for compensatory damages for Wielinski’s wrongful death, his pain and suffering, his family’s injuries and their pain and suffering.
The judge ordered the hearing on the two doctors’ opinions about the cause of death because he said their finding that Wielinski had edema in the lungs, when there was no such finding in the autopsy and when no irritant was found in the victim’s airways, represented “a departure from any accepted medical practice or methodology in forensic pathology following autopsy.”
The defendants contend that Wielinski died instantly from multiple blunt force trauma to his chest when the plane crashed into his home.