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."