Though they didn't know it at the time, Gabrielle deFiebre and her friends' cross-country trip from New York City to Phoenix would reach an untimely climax at the airport, where Gabrielle's wheelchair would be broken by Delta Airlines staff, and over 15.5 million people would watch the viral video of her resulting heartbreak.
Having heard stories from others in her community who have had their wheelchairs damaged by airlines, Gabrielle, a woman with transverse myelitis, was excited for her trip but anxious to travel. "Anyone who has flown with me has seen my anxiety level skyrocket the moment my chair is taken away to be placed in the cargo area of the plane," the 32-year-old told BuzzFeed. "Until I am safely back in my wheelchair and know that it’s working, I am anxious."
Her worst fears came to life when Gabrielle de-boarded her Delta Airlines flight and came face to face with what was once her perfectly operating wheelchair. "It was...bent, and spokes were broken off," she said. "The wheel was so warped that the chair could not roll. I...was devastated. I figured I’d have to turn back around, go back to NYC, and wait weeks or months for a repair or replacement."
Gabrielle's wheelchair is custom-made; her legs, hips, and arms were all measured so the frame could be built to her body. Even the cushion was made from a custom mold of her butt.
Moreover, because Gabrielle has limited hand function on one side and no function on the other, her wheels are a high-tech, power-assist pair with a motor that helps her propel forward. When she's seen crying "This is my life, this is the only way I can live" over and over again to Delta employees in the video, she means it.
One of Gabrielle's friends on the trip, Bri Scalesse, remembers rushing to console her: "The wheel looked like it was hanging, and I immediately turned away because I didn’t want her to see my literal panic. When I turned back around, I just wheeled over to her and held her and all three of us traveling together cried. It was so painful to see her realize that her literal way of living life was broken," Bri told BuzzFeed.
When Delta Airlines employees approached the group, Bri felt compelled to whip out her camera. "I thought recording the moment, for our friends, or to send to the airline, or maybe even for the internet, could be important [for people] to see the reality of what flying is like for many wheelchair users," Bri said. "Flying is always scary for us...because we have heard, and some of us have experienced, the horror of getting off a plane and seeing our metaphorical legs broken. It happens every single day."
And it does. Before COVID-19 restrictions affected traveling, an Air Travel Consumer Report documented 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters being lost, damaged, stolen, or delayed in 2019, meaning there were about 29 of these incidents per day.
When BuzzFeed reached out to Delta Airlines about the incident, spokesperson Morgan Durrant sent this reply: “We’re so sorry that her wheelchair was damaged and have been in touch with her and worked with her directly to make this right, including support to make repairs to her device."
"Delta has been very apologetic and has taken on the financial responsibility of replacing the wheels. Every person I have worked with has been kind, [but] this isn't an individual person problem or even just a Delta problem," Gabrielle said. "[It's} a larger, systemic problem that needs to be fixed for future travelers."
After the incident with her wheelchair, Gabrielle hopes her viral story can be a catalyst for change: "I'm hoping airlines...make sure they provide [employees] with adequate training, support, and [education on how] to load and unload chairs properly. I'm also hoping they offer adequate and prompt solutions for customers who have their chairs damaged, [because] based on the experience of so many other disabled travelers, I am not sure this always happens."
"I think there is a lack of understanding of how mobility devices serve as an extension of our bodies. A broken mobility device is not an inconvenience, it is a major life-altering event that disrupts people’s lives," Gabrielle concluded. "My chair is an extension of my body. It serves the purpose my legs used to — it is the way I move through the world...which is why having this not happen in the first place is incredibly important."
Though Gabrielle was ultimately able to borrow an extra wheel from someone in Phoenix, which temporarily replaced the one Delta broke, life at home will be a different story.
If you would like to keep up with Gabrielle and her journey, you can follow her on Instagram. You can also follow Bri on TikTok.