By now, you may have heard about the woman who was ordered by a United Airlines flight attendant Monday to put her pet carrier in an overhead bin--with her dog inside it--and who was horrified when the flight landed to discover that the dog had died.
In fact, my colleague Chris Matyszczyk wrote about this earlier, and it's been all over the media today. The original force behind the story, however, is a passenger who was on the flight named Maggie Gremminger, who tells me she was "heartbroken" by the incident--and who, not coincidentally, also happens to run social media feeds for a living.
I tracked down Gremminger in New York City and spoke with her by phone--making me the first journalist who talked with her directly, she said, as opposed to sharing her social media posts or communicating via email or Twitter.
Below, we'll explain what happened on the flight, along with Gremminger's super-effective social strategy. It's a tragic and horrible situation, and it's also very instructive in that she displayed four key tenets that helped her get an important message out quickly, and be heard above the clutter.
Specifically, it's the passion with which Gremminger told the story, the immediacy with which she got it out to the world, the direction she provided on social media, and the sheer determination she displayed, clawing and fighting her way to get it in front of media outlets as quickly as possible.
In the end, it became one of the most-talked about stories today, and also resulted in a no-holds barred apology from United, which said that it "assum[es] full responsibility for this tragedy."
First, Gremminger's perspective--beyond what she included in her social media posts.
She was traveling back to New York from California Monday night, with a stop in Houston. She was already settled in Seat 24A when a mother carrying an infant, accompanied by her daughter, tried to get set up in the row ahead of her.
As the woman got situated, a flight attendant noticed her bag on the floor, and told her she'd have to move it to the overhead bin.
"The woman was adamant that she did not want to be moving it up there," Gremminger recounted. "I heard [her] tell the flight attendant that it was her dog. She wanted to leave it there because it was her dog."
However, the flight attendant apparently either didn't understand or didn't care, Gremminger said. So, the woman put the bag--which Gremminger said she now clearly saw was a black dog carrier with mesh--in the overhead bin.
Gremminger said she sensed that the woman was reluctant, but she couldn't get into an argument with the cabin crew:
A mother with an infant baby and a daughter--she didn't want conflict, and attention, and to risk not getting home. ... She didn't seem to feel like she wanted a drawn-out, confrontational thing. She was trying to respect authority, and she has an infant and another daughter. She was frazzled but she went along and complied.
"Poor puppy. He's scared"
The dog didn't bark at first, and the airplane filled up. Gremminger said she was torn. It didn't seem right to put a dog in the overhead bin, she thought, but she also wondered if maybe the flight attendant knew something she didn't. Maybe it was OK?
"I started Googling. I don't know if there's a ventilation thing up there or anything," she said. But before she could find an answer, "we had to turn our phones off."
The flight took off at 6:18 p.m., and Gremminger said she heard the dog bark a couple of times. She and some other passengers exchanged looks, she said, as if to say, "Poor puppy. He's scared."
Then, about 20 or 30 minutes into the flight, they heard the dog bark a bit more, and then fall silent. It wasn't until after they landed and everyone was standing up to pack their things that they realized what was wrong.
"In the moment after the 'ding' hits, and everyone unbuckles their seatbelt, I heard some gasping," Gremminger said. "I saw the mother on the floor of the aircraft in the middle of the aisle. And she was just crying."
"It was the worst feeling"
You've flown on crowded planes in coach. You know that impatient pause, when people are grouped together in the aisle, waiting for the people in front to get off. Now, everyone stayed clear for the woman, who was apparently cradling her "completely lifeless" dog on the floor.
"A stranger took her newborn, and the whole area of the plane could see," she told me, her voice straining with emotion. "She was crying. Her daughter was crying. It was the worst feeling."
Finally, they got off the plane. Many people who hadn't been sitting nearby had no idea what happened until then--including most of the flight crew.
"The United people were equally like, 'What the hell?' No flight attendant even knew this happened except the one that told her to put the bag up," Gremminger said.
Afterward, she saw the woman and her daughter and infant in the terminal. They haven't been identified in news reports and Gremminger said that while she gave them her information, she didn't get theirs.
"I kind of gave them both a hug, and gave them my name and phone number," she said. "They at least know that other people saw it. We didn't want them to think that they're alone."
(Update: After I published this story, other media organizations identified the woman with the dog as Catalina Castano, who was traveling with her 11-year-old daughter. The dog's name was Kokito, and he was a 9-month-old French bulldog that had been the daughter's birthday gift last year.)
The social reaction
Gremminger was in shock. When she got back to her home in New York, in Queens, just a 10 minute ride from the airport, she started to post on social media.
"I just feel shock. ... The image of that woman on the ground will not leave me. I'm just so heartbroken. ... I was feeling so much guilt for not calling out the flight attendant. So I was doing some therapeutic typing on Facebook," she said, "and people were giving me input: 'This is something you should share.''"
Professionally, Gremminger is the community relations manager for Hilary's, a health food company. And as part of her job, she social media campaigns. And while that's "a very different space," she told me, she had a sense how to work quickly on Facebook and Twitter--and maybe make something go viral.
So, she started tweeting, including her original Facebook post, and tagging travel blogs and news organizations. After she got up in the morning, she was practically begging for someone to cover the story.
I couldn't really sleep last night, and when I did drift off I was reliving last night. @Jezebel @BuzzFeed @BuzzFeedNews @peta @DailyMail - can you help me amplify this? It should NEVER happen again to ANYONE. pic.twitter.com/oBvVPCHCyb-- MaggieGremminger (@MaggieGrem) March 13, 2018
"The travel blogs were kind of the first ones" to reach out to her via Twitter, she said, followed by People Pets, and newspapers in Chicago, Houston, and Boston and ABC News. She had an email from a reporter at The New York Times.
If any good could come out of all of this, she told me, it would be to spread the word and making sure people know one simple thing: Pets should never be placed in an overhead bin on an airplane.
United Airlines agrees. Here's the full statement they sent me via email:
This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.
(I've highlighted and italicized that part just in case you're ever on a plane where someone tries to do this.)
To my mind, it's a straightforward statement and to the airline's credit, regardless of what happens from here. But without Gremminger's campaign, we might never have seen it.