Physician David Dao fled from the violence of the Vietnam War in a boat when Saigon fell in 1975.
But the traumatic experience paled next to the concussion, lost teeth and broken nose the Kentuckian suffered when Chicago security officers dragged him off a full United Airlines flight Sunday, he told his attorneys.
"What happened to him should never happen to any human being," Dao's daughter, Crystal Dao Pepper of Barrington, said at a Thursday news event. Speaking out for the first time, she said her family is "horrified and shocked" at what happened to a man she called "a wonderful father" and "a loving grandfather."
United Airlines and the Chicago Aviation Department are in the crosshairs of public outrage after Dao's treatment touched a nerve in the American psyche.
Dao and his wife were passing through O'Hare as they traveled between a California vacation and their Elizabethtown, Kentucky, home, said his daughter, a 33-year-old mother and one of five children of the Daos. Dao was seated on Flight 3411 to Louisville and was yanked off when he refused to give up his seat to accommodate a Republic Airways crew. Flight 3411 was operated by Republic, a United partner.
"For too long airlines and United Airlines in particular have bullied us," attorney Thomas A. Demetrio said, adding he wants his client to be the poster child" for flyers tired of "being treated like cattle."
"Dr. Dao understands he's the guy standing up for passengers going forward."
Dao was released from the hospital Wednesday but will require reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said.
United officials on Thursday apologized, noting they had tried to reach Dao numerous times.
"This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action," a statement said.
The action includes refraining from involving law enforcement in removing passengers unless for safety or security reasons, reviewing employee training, and scrutinizing overbooking policies.
The Chicago Department of Aviation put three security officers who hauled Dao away on leave.
Demetrio, in a prelude to a lawsuit he said he and attorney Stephen L. Golan will file, referred to the three officers as "storm troopers" and said both the city and United were at fault.
"He's a 69-year-old man. Is that really the way we want to treat the aged?" Demetrio asked.
Dao Pepper acknowledged the turmoil felt by her family. "Our lives have been interrupted and our normalcy is not what it was on Sunday morning." She thanked the hospital staff that treated her father and the public "for the huge outpouring of prayers, love and concern we've received from all over the world."
The event sent United into damage control mode after CEO Oscar Munoz initially told employees they had acted appropriately and followed standard procedures. He quickly shifted amid threats of congressional action and public outcries, taking full responsibility for the debacle and calling it "a horrific event."
Video taken by other passengers shows three officers converging on Dao, yanking him out of his seat and dragging him down the aisle. His face is bleeding with bruises or cuts.
The scuffle caught on video sparked international outrage over the erosion of flyers' rights.
Suburban Democratic U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston and Daniel Lipinski of Western Springs are considering legislation to prevent forcible evictions from airplanes in cases when flights are oversold.
Demetrio called a report from Chicago authorities that Dao had posed a security risk "ridiculous." Dao reboarded the plane and is shown on video with a bloodied face.
"He has zippo memory of going back on the airplane," the attorney said.
Demetrio blamed the flight crew for not intervening.
"The airplane is under the control of the pilot. He's the captain of the ship," he said.
Republic Airways has not commented.
No lawsuit has been filed yet but Demetrio gave a hint of future strategy, saying, "If you eject a passenger, under no circumstances can it be done with unreasonable force or violence."