A family's French bulldog suffocated to death in the overhead compartment on a United Airlines flight on Monday after a flight attendant forced them to place the dog in the compartment for the entire three-hour-long flight.
The airline confirmed the incident to BuzzFeed News, calling it "a tragic accident that should never have occurred."
The dog's owner, Catalina Castano, was traveling with her 11-year-old daughter and 2-month-old son from Houston to New York's LaGuardia Airport on Monday after visiting her husband, Brayan.
Castano carried their 10-month-old French bulldog puppy, Kokito, with her in a standard pet carrier and initially placed the dog under the seat in front of her.
Brayan Castano told BuzzFeed News the family paid the airline fee to carry Kokito with them in the cabin, but a flight attendant told Catalina she had to place the pet carrier with Kokito inside into an overhead bin.
“My wife repeatedly asked her to let her keep the dog by her feet,” Brayan Castano said. “She then asked her if the dog would be OK. The flight attendant wouldn’t let her keep Kokito by her feet and assured her that he would be fine. Witnesses can attest to that."
Passenger Maggie Gremminger, who witnessed the incident, told BuzzFeed News Castano was "very hesitant and reluctant" about putting the pet carrier in the overhead bin, explaining that her dog was inside.
"There was some back-and-forth before finally the flight attendant convinced her to move the carrier to the bin above," Gremminger said. "The gentleman sitting next to me (in 24B at that time) looked at one another to confirm what we had just seen, both of us acknowledging it was clearly a dog, and feeling stunned that it was placed there."
Another passenger, June Lara, said he was sitting behind the family during the exchange.
"They INSISTED that the puppy be locked up for three hours without any kind of airflow," he wrote on Facebook. "They assured the safety of the family's pet so wearily, the mother agreed."
Brayan Castano said his wife was unable to get up from her seat during the flight to check on the puppy because there was turbulence during the entire journey. BuzzFeed News has contacted United about this claim.
To the family's horror, when the woman pulled the dog down after the flight, she found it had died.
Gremminger said the woman was "shocked and heartbroken."
"A stranger offered to hold her newborn while she sat on the floor there in the airplane aisle. She was holding her dog and rocking back and forth. Her daughter was also crying," she said.
The flight attendant, Gremminger said, seemed shaken by the incident as well.
"She said that she did not know there was a dog in the bag and if so she never would have instructed it to be put in the bin above," Gremminger said.
Gremminger wrote on Twitter she was horrified by the incident. A spokesperson for United told BuzzFeed News it is launching an investigation into the dog's death.
"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," the statement said.
The case also got the attention of Washington. After the story went viral on Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana sent a letter to the president of the airline, J. Scott Kirby, demanding a thorough investigation.
"This pattern of animal deaths and injuries is simply inexcusable. For many people, pets are members of the family. They should not be treated like insignificant cargo. Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold much less an overhead bin," Kennedy wrote.