One of Sarah Dugan's last thoughts before her life changed forever was particularly sweet.

It was the morning of November 2, 1990, and Sarah was at work as a quality-control supervisor at the American Express administrative complex in north Phoenix. She walked over to a colleague's desk inside the building dubbed WROC II--Western Region Operations Center--wearing a wide smile.

"She said that she just felt wonderful," Sandra Cordes recalls. "Joe had said to her, 'Sarah, you know, all the time we've been married, you never wake up cross.' And she said, 'Wasn't that a wonderful thing for someone to say after 32 years?' She was very pleased. . . ."
The pleasant mood at 6225 North 24th Parkway evaporated around noon. Another co-worker, Kathy Smith, glanced in at Sarah's cubicle and saw her sitting at her desk, leaning on one elbow. Moments later, Smith heard a kind of groan and assumed Sarah had fallen asleep.

She walked back over to tease Sarah about snoozing on the job. It was then that Smith realized what was happening. Everyone who worked closely with 55-year-old Sarah knew she'd had heart problems--aortic valve and pacemaker surgery in 1982, and a pacemaker replacement operation in 1988.

Smith ran out of Sarah's cubicle screaming: "Call 911! Something has happened to Sarah!" Fellow worker Judy Sabic dialed the universally known emergency number. But something was very wrong.

"I can't get through, I can't get through," Sabic repeated in a panic. "It keeps going dead."
Others tried to get through to 911 on phone after phone without success. An employee trained in CPR started to work on Sarah, who was unconscious and not breathing.

Judy Sabic says one or two minutes passed before she opened an American Express employee manual and looked up the firm's in-house security number, 1414.

American Express records obtained by New Times indicate more crucial seconds slipped away after Sabic dialed 1414. Sabic told company guard Scott Killius what was happening. Killius dispatched guard Mansfield Finney to see if Sarah Dugan's condition merited a call to 911. Finney made his way to the second floor. He reported back that, yes, the collapsed woman needed emergency medical treatment. He then assisted in the effort to try to get Sarah breathing again.

More than a minute--it's impossible to say exactly how long--passed from the time Judy Sabic dialed 1414 until security called 911. Around the same time, another of Sarah's co-workers also finally got through to 911, probably from a pay phone in the office hallway.

The rescue efforts of company employees and Phoenix Fire Department paramedics saved Sarah Dugan's life, but not her body and mind. Though Sarah later regained consciousness, the Glendale mother of four became a virtual vegetable, the lack of oxygen to her brain making real recovery impossible.

If that wasn't enough for the Dugan family to cope with, it took another devastating blow in the days after Sarah collapsed. That's when family members learned why it had taken paramedics more than 20 minutes to reach Sarah after Kathy Smith first discovered her unconscious.

Several months before Sarah's heart failed, American Express had taken the remarkable step of blocking 911 from its workers at WROC II. And, more stunning, the company had done so without informing employees that dialing company security guards at 1414 was their only route in case of emergency.

Under the new system, the guards were then to determine if a bona fide emergency existed and would phone 911 if necessary. Routing calls through security was designed to speed emergency response, American Express lead engineer Donald Harris explained in a court deposition last May 17.

Officials at several Phoenix-area businesses and fire departments express surprise and dismany at American Express' decision. "Why in the world would a company want to do that?" asks Phoenix Fire Department division chief Doug Tucker.

Still, American Express so far has escaped legal responsibility for what happened on November 2, 1990. The company recently convinced a Maricopa County Superior Court judge that the Dugan family's only financial recourse is workers' compensation benefits, not the firm's own deep pockets.

(American Express officials wouldn't allow its employees to discuss the Sarah Dugan matter with New Times. Company attorney David Bodney referred questions to the firm's public relations arm--which declined comment. The paper relied on public records to get American Express' side of the story.)

"[We] have been moved in a very profound way by the on-job injuries that were suffered by Sarah Dugan," attorney Bodney told a judge during the courtroom brawl over the firm's legal responsibilities. "But there was no willful conduct on the part of [American Express]. We willfully designed a phone system we hoped would prevent injury."
But PFD's Doug Tucker remains baffled that American Express blocked 911. "Those three numbers are a very important part of our society," he says. "And if you're going to block it for some reason, you should inform your employees of the ins and outs--an ongoing educational process. Stickers on the phones, meetings and so on, before an emergency strikes."

@body:It is a sweltering summer's night, and Joe Dugan and his children--Maggie, Diane, Brian and Lynne--have gathered on the back porch of the Dugans' tidy Glendale home.

Joe and Sarah Dugan's four grandchildren play boisterously inside the home, a few feet from the bedroom in which Sarah is reclining. Sarah spends most of her hours there, drifting in and out of a netherworld that seems impossible to quantify.

Every so often, she demands something in a loud, slurred voice. But much of the time she just lies there, surrounded by signs of the family's devout Catholic faith.

Her husband of 35 years has tacked up a handwritten missive near Sarah's bed. "Lord, thank you for blessing us every day with courage, faith, forgiveness and hope," it says. "Lord, we can feel you offering miracles for us to behold."

And it will take a miracle for Sarah Dugan to get better: She often contorts uncontrollably, despite medication designed to keep spasms to a minimum. She can't say if something is bothering her physically. She's incontinent. She can't remember her children's names or her married name. Her sleep patterns are erratic.

"This scenario--what she is today--is Mom's worst nightmare," says daughter Diane Dugan Roche, a dental hygienist who lives in Tucson. "She talked about it because of her previous heart problems. She made out a living will. And she always would say, 'Don't let me live if I can't be me.'"
Once, Sarah was known for her keen sense of humor. But she rarely smiles anymore, and usually it's more of a grimace than an expression of joy. Her loved ones must try to find comfort in the memories of the person Sarah once was.

"I've always known Sarah was the best woman in the world since I met her," 60-year-old Joe Dugan says softly. That was in the early 1950s in their hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.

The two met at a dance after 19-year-old Joe Dugan's first year of professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He soon became smitten with the outgoing high school student.

Joe was forced to put his pro baseball career on hold after he joined the Air Force in 1952. He and Sarah exchanged dozens of letters during his four-year hitch, during which he starred for the branch's traveling ball team.

Dugan returned to the minor leagues after his honorable discharge in 1956. But the big time wasn't in his future, unlike his namesake of New York Yankee fame, "Jumpin'" Joe Dugan. So Dugan moved back to Steubenville, found work in a steel mill and, in 1957, asked Sarah to marry him.

"God bless me for having Sarah say yes," he says, gesturing to the couple's black-and-white wedding photo. "She was the only woman for me. She is my love, my life, my all."
After Sarah Dugan's family, American Express was her all. Until the day she collapsed, say those who know her well, Sarah went to work with the same zest as she had after the company hired her 17 years earlier.

Seeking a fresh start, the Dugans and their four children migrated to Phoenix from their native Ohio in 1972. American Express hired Sarah full-time the following year, after she worked a stint there as a Kelly Girl. Sarah quickly entrenched herself as a valued employee at the fast-growing firm.

"Mom and all of us always thought the company was great," says 27-year-old Lynne Dugan, a former part-time American Express employee and the youngest of the Dugan children. "She worked hard and they promoted her. We just don't know why they did what they did with 911."
Her ambivalence is indicative of the Dugan clan's attitude toward the company.
"We all still have our American Express cards, you know, 'Don't Leave Home Without It,'" Lynne Dugan continues. "But what about leaving home without 911? What about that?"
Two of the Dugan siblings excuse themselves for a few minutes to change their mother's soiled bedclothes. They accept the unsavory task with grace and gallows humor, then return to the conversation.

"My mom is a shell," says Maggie Dugan Radovanovich, the Dugans' first-born and a registered nurse who also lives in Tucson. "She was the hub of our family--our best friend, our confidante. The worst thing now is, nothing is final, everything is gray--the court case, her health, everything."
The Dugans' only son, Brian, expresses outrage that his mother's employer blocked 911.

"American Express is supposed to be state-of-the-art corporate America," says Brian, a convenience-store marketing director who moved back to Phoenix from Kansas City after the tragedy. "How could they do such a blatantly erroneous thing? Our love for Mom is the same as always. But seeing her living like she lives hurts the heart alive."
Long-term disability insurance and other policies continue to cover most of Sarah Dugan's medical expenses, but her husband suspects bankruptcy may be in the future. His day-to-day struggles with Sarah, however, keep him from worrying too much about what may lie ahead.

"The hardest times," Joe Dugan explains in a whisper, "are when she blurts something out of nowhere, like, 'Let me die, please.' It's like a part of her knows at times what's going on."
@body:A company's blocking 911 from its employees is almost unheard-of in Phoenix and around the nation, say emergency-response experts contacted by New Times.

The system developed by Motorola is typical of the Phoenix area's largest employers. That firm trains and retrains employees to call its on-site Emergency Response Team in medical and other emergencies.

But, unlike those at American Express in 1990, Motorola also allows its workers direct access to 911. And when a Motorola employee dials 911, the call also automatically alerts company security personnel, providing fast on- and off-site access.

But for a firm to shut off 911 from its employees?
Fujitsu Business Communications Systems saleswoman Kate McCavitt said in a recent court deposition she'd never encountered such a request during a decade in the business until she met with American Express on February 28, 1990.

The Phoenix meeting took place a few months before the company moved more than 500 employees--including Sarah Dugan and her quality-control unit--into WROC II. Fujitsu signed a $424,823 contract with American Express to install a phone system in the building.

American Express' Don Harris testified in his deposition that company security personnel had expressed concern over "fat-finger dialing," or accidental calls to 911. That, Harris said, had led to the decision to shut off 911 access to employees.

Kate McCavitt testified she'd never heard of fat-fingering as a major concern for businesses. She says she told Harris that Fujitsu could easily rig a phone system to call-forward 911 calls to American Express security--similar to the Motorola model.

But she alleges Harris was adamant about wanting 911 completely out of the reach of employees.

"He said, 'No 911. Period,'" McCavitt recounted under oath. "He said it was necessary that people at American Express dial 1414--the security offices--because American Express is a very big place with many entrances. . . ."
In a deposition June 10, Fujitsu technician Tana Velez recalled her surprise at American Express' no-911 request. "Nobody wants to change 911," she said, "because that's how everybody is trained from the time they're born to reach emergency services."

But Fujitsu did as instructed, cutting off 911 to the employees at the new WROC II building in the spring of 1990. On April 2, 1990, company manager of security Ed Kurowski issued a one-page memo to the building's employees informing them about 1414.

"If fire or any emergency requiring assistance occurs at this site," it said, "the on-duty security officers will call 911." But the memo didn't say American Express had moved 911 out of the reach of its workers.

"I assumed you were supposed to contact security, but I also assumed you can call 911," says Sarah's onetime co-worker Sandra Cordes. "There was only the one security guard in the building most of the time. And you couldn't reach him."
Don Harris recalled how the firm anticipated its employees would remember to dial 1414 in case of emergency. He insisted, for one thing, that American Express had attached 1414 stickers to every phone in WROC II before Sarah Dugan collapsed in November 1990.

But American Express' own documents refute Harris on that point: A company memo obtained by New Times indicates 142 phones in WROC II didn't have the informational stickers on them on November 2, 1990. The document was dated November 4--two days after Sarah collapsed.

Sixty-six of those phones were located on the second floor of WROC II, in the immediate vicinity of Sarah's desk.

Some high-level officials at American Express have admitted they didn't know about the squelching of 911 before Sarah Dugan collapsed. Gayle Berry--Sarah's supervisor in 1990 and now a vice president of customer service--also revealed in a deposition that even today, she doesn't have a 1414 sticker on her office phone.

@body:A lawsuit filed last October by the Dugans against American Express and several other defendants alleges the company's blocking of 911 led to the severity of Sarah's brain damage.

But so far, the huge firm is winning its fight in Maricopa County Superior Court to avoid legal responsibility for what happened after Sarah's collapse.

Usually in disputed workers' compensation cases, a boss will contend an employee's injury didn't stem from the job. In the case of Sarah Dugan, however, American Express has insisted Sarah is covered. If the courts finally conclude Sarah is entitled to workers' comp, the Dugans would be barred by law from suing American Express.

That's because in exchange for their right to compensation for on-job injuries, workers in the early 1900s gave up their right to sue their employers. With certain exceptions, employers still enjoy that immunity.

The difference between workers' comp benefits and what a jury might award the Dugans after a trial could be millions of dollars.

American Express' strategy has been chillingly effective. The company recently convinced Superior Court Judge Michael Wilkinson that Sarah is eligible for workers' comp benefits, thus invalidating the family's lawsuit against them.

Judge Wilkinson ruled in American Express' favor despite an Arizona law that excludes heart-related injuries from workers' comp coverage unless "some injury, stress or exertion related to the employment was a substantial contributing cause. . . ."

The company has produced no evidence to prove Sarah Dugan's collapse was caused by her job, and her cardiologist, Dr. Jerome Robinson, signed an affidavit that concluded: "Sarah's job responsibilities and work environment played absolutely no role in the heart event that occurred on November 2, 1990. . . ."

But it has boded poorly for the Dugans that the nation's courts have expanded the circumstances under which employees may collect workers' comp. One example: In Mississippi a few years ago, the courts ruled an employee's heart attack following the use of an electric screwdriver was compensable.

Last April 16, Judge Wilkinson ruled that workers' comp is the Dugans' sole legal remedy. The judge wrote that Sarah's heart failure and subsequent brain damage "arose out of" her employment and entitle her only to workers' comp benefits--a maximum of two-thirds of her salary.

In doing so, the judge dismissed American Express from the Dugans' lawsuit, which was filed by their attorneys, Kevin Schwartz and Kevin Garrison. Fujitsu, which blocked 911 at the request of American Express, remains a key defendant.

Unless an Arizona appellate court overrules Judge Wilkinson, American Express will be off the hook.

"It was a very, very close question, one that was right down the line," the judge tells New Times. "This is an issue that the Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court hasn't specifically considered. I would hope--very, very much--that they do."
The ruling deeply frustrates Joe Dugan and his family.
"It sickened me and our kids to hear this 'moved in a profound way' crap from their lawyer," Joe Dugan says, referring to the courtroom comments of American Express attorney David Bodney. "We're looking for truth and justice, but I don't know if we're gonna get it."
@body:Within hours after Sarah Dugan collapsed on November 2, 1990, an official from the State of Arizona's Occupational Safety and Health Administration called American Express. OSHA's Linda Masci said she had gotten two calls from company employees that day complaining about the emergency-response system.

Masci told American Express the complaint wasn't an OSHA violation, but she suggested company employees should be certain of what to do in an emergency. With that in mind, the firm began a process of corporate butt-covering.

American Express assigned guards to check the phones in WROC II and, according to an internal memo, to "place emergency stickers on any telephone that didn't have one on it already." That's when the company determined 142 phones lacked such stickers. Within a few days, American Express placed 1414 stickers on most of those phones.

Then, on November 6, American Express security manager Ed Kurowski sent a memo to his boss, Don Parrish. The memo said that "all parties, after careful study, found the policies/procedures [of the 911 blockage] to be correct and effective."

Still, Kurowski ultimately recommended that American Express "remove block on 911 at WROC I and WROC II. Risk: If block is removed, security may not be notified and correct information on location not received by responding emergency unit."

Ex-American Express employee Sandra Cordes says company supervisors told WROC II employees soon after the incident "that the phone system had been changed so that when you called 911, it would go through to security and to 911 at the same time. So you would have both on the phone. . . ."

To many employees at WROC II, the corporate reaction was an unspoken admission that shutting down 911 had been a terrible mistake.

But the saga of 911 and American Express was not yet concluded. Several weeks ago, sources at American Express told New Times that the two-way emergency-response system--911 and 1414--was in effect at WROC II, but not at nearby WROC I.

Those sources said if someone dialed 911 from WROC I, he or she will get a recorded message: "This is a nonworking number at American Express."

But soon after the company got wind that New Times was preparing a story on the Sarah Dugan episode, it issued a memo detailing emergency procedures at the two WROC buildings and at a third Phoenix location.

The memo, dated July 13, assures employees that "workplace safety and security is a high priority at American Express." It notes employees should dial 1414 in case of emergency, but adds, "in addition, employees can access 911 by dialing 9-911."

@body:At the end of each of his days, Joe Dugan says he quietly talks with his God: "I ask Him, 'How did I do today? Was I patient enough with Sarah?' If He had wanted to take Sarah on November 2, 1990, He would have. But she's still here with us."

He spends almost every minute with his wife, and he says he will tend to her until one of them dies.

"I love her and it's my responsibility to her," Joe Dugan says. "That's a word American Express should learn--responsibility."
Sarah hollers something from the bedroom. Her husband walks to her side to see what she needs. She moans something unintelligible to him.

"I love you, honey," Joe Dugan responds.
"I know you do," Sarah Dugan replies, in a rare moment of painful lucidity. She bursts into tears and shuts her eyes.

"You are a wonderful woman, Sarah Dugan," her husband of 35 years says, as he strokes her hand gently. "God will look out for us.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin