Boat captain wakes, misses connection
LAFAYETTE — Thomas Wagner woke up on a dark, quiet plane Friday night at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, where he was supposed to board a bigger jet to Los Angeles to see his sister.
Instead of hurrying through Houston’s busy airport terminals to catch his next flight, he was stuck — alone and cold — on the heatless United Express jet that had ferried him from Lafayette to Houston.
“It was a cold night in Houston. The whole country’s freezing and I got a T-shirt on,” said Wagner, of Lafayette, on Monday.
The story of how Wagner awoke to find himself the lone occupant on the locked-up jet is one he’s been busy telling the country.
On Monday evening in Lafayette, Wagner’s fiancée Debra Dedeus was getting ready to be interviewed by a television news crew.
“It’s been absolutely crazy,” Wagner said in the drawl of his hometown, Brooklyn, N.Y.
By the time he returns to Lafayette on Monday, hundreds of thousands if not more will know the story of the Gulf of Mexico boat captain who went through a traveler’s nightmare, albeit one that Wagner and Dedeus have infused with humor.
As the captain of an oil platform supply boat, Wagner is no stranger to bumps and other movement while he sleeps.
So when he nodded off on the flight from Lafayette to Houston, it was no surprise the landing bounce didn’t wake him.
Wagner slept through other passengers disembarking at Houston, and apparently was not seen by the crew before the jet was closed up tight.
“I looked down the aisle, there was nobody on the plane,” Wagner said. “It was locked up. Lights were off. No motors running. It was like it was secured for the night.”
Wagner, 51, who had a window seat near the back of the plane, said he didn’t panic.
“I had a little smile: I’ve got to get off here,” he said.
But first, “I had to use the bathroom,” he said. “I was walking around, had to find the bathroom in the dark.”
After that, he called Dedeus, who lightened the mood by giggling at his predicament.
“Get me off this plane!” Wagner implored. “Stop laughing. It’s getting cold.”
She called United Airlines in Lafayette, where Wagner had boarded United Express Flight 4245 on Friday evening to make a connection in Houston, and was told there was “no way” he was stuck on that plane.
Back on board, Wagner started walking around.
“This is crazy stuff,” he told himself.
He reached the front of the aircraft.
“I grabbed the (entrance door) lever,” Wagner said. “I thought: I better not do that. Let them get me off the plane. So many things go through your head.”
Moments later, a couple of maintenance workers coincidentally opened the door and found Wagner there to greet them.
“What are you doing on this plane?” he said they demanded. “Where’s your badge?”
So he explained he was a passenger who had been sleeping, and he awoke to discover the lights off, the doors closed and everybody gone.
One of the workers got on his radio and Wagner was escorted to the terminal.
By then, he’d missed his connection to Los Angeles, although his checked bags made it. He spent the night at a motel near the Houston airport.
Regional carrier ExpressJet, operating the flight for United, said in a statement that it apologized to Wagner for the inconvenience and the airline was investigating what happened.
“Could have been worse,” Wagner said. “What if I was dead? How do you explain that the next morning? They found a dead body on the plane.”
Wagner said the airline gave him a $250 voucher, picked up the motel bill and switched him Saturday to a more convenient flight to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif.
Wagner, who declined to reveal the boat company he works for, said he works an offshore shift of 28 days on and 14 days off. He said he’ll return to work in mid-December.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.