Philadelphia Int'l Airport Defibrillator Whistleblower Punished

When the Daily News reported in April that a passenger at Philadelphia International Airport died of a heart attack after two automatic defibrillator units there failed to work, union steward Saul Ravitch had a story to tell.

The airport has more than 140 wall-mounted defibrillators, designed to deliver life-saving electric jolts to heart-attack victims.

Ravitch, who'd been on the airport safety committee, said that 18 months before he'd warned airport officials in writing of concerns that batteries in the defibrillators weren't being maintained.

Last week, he learned the consequences of talking to reporters.

Airport officials have handed Ravitch a three-day suspension, citing his "disobedience of orders and insubordination" in talking to the Daily News and to Channel 10, which did two follow-up pieces on the death.

Ravitch, ironically a public-relations officer for the airport, said the suspension "sends the worst kind of message. It tells them to keep their mouths shut about problems or face the consequences."

Ravitch, who emphasized he was not speaking as an airport spokesman, said "under airport director Charlie Isdell, the airport has become a dysfunctional fantasyland, where managers ignore bad news and punish employees who ask two many questions."

Ravitch is appealing the suspension.

Isdell and airport public-relations director Mark Pesce declined comment yesterday.

Pesce, who is also Ravitch's supervisor, explained the suspension in a two-page memo to Ravitch.

In the memo, Pesce said Ravitch "provided unauthorized and inaccurate information for a potential negative story by the media."

"As a public-relations specialist, your fundamental job function is to promote and enhance the airport's image; your negative actions are in direct violation of your job duties," the memo said. "In the eyes of the general public, your quotes and on-camera interview portrayed you as an authorized spokesman for the airport and the AED defibrillator Program. However, you are neither."

Ravitch said he never spoke on the defibrillator issue as an airport spokesman. He was described in the Daily News story as an airport union steward who served on the airport safety committee.

Ravitch said Pesce hasn't explained what information Ravitch provided was regarded as inaccurate.

Pesce has maintained that airport defibrillators are well maintained and that all units worked properly on Jan. 13, when passenger Robert McCormack collapsed in Concourse C and died.

The Daily News story quoted cardiologist Robert Sangrigoli, who tried to revive McCormack, as well as an unnamed witness and the medical examiner's report as saying batteries on two defibrillator units failed, though one of them worked briefly before dying.

By all accounts a third defibrillator worked properly, but several minutes passed before it was employed.

Ravitch, who's worked for the airport since 1999, said his difficulties with management began after he became a union shop steward in 2002. He said he filed grievances challenging the status of Janis Pierce, a deputy aviation director recommended by Mayor Street's office who eventually resigned after questions arose about a Harvard degree she claimed to hold.

Ravitch said he was soon stripped of any meaningful work and was assigned a project to "count airport brochures and determine their usage on a weekly, monthly and annual basis as well as devise methods of inventory control and budgeting guidelines."