November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

Nancy Spielberg was playing go fish with her daughter Jessica, 6, when, nearly four hours out of Los Angeles, the DC-10 hit a storm packing 50 mph vertical winds. “Suddenly our bodies just slammed up into the ceiling,” says Spielberg, 43, sister of movie mogul Steven. “I went straight up on my head and folded up like an accordion. Everything from the back of the plane was lurching forward, including my daughter. I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to die.’ ”

When American Airlines Flight 58, en route to New York City on June 25, 1995, made an emergency landing in Chicago, 13 of the 101 passengers had to be hospitalized. But for Spielberg, her two daughters (Melissa, 2, was wedged between a seat and the floor) and 10 others, who suffered only minor injuries, it was the emotional jostling that led them to court. On Oct. 7, a federal jury in Manhattan awarded the 13 a total of $2.2 million, the largest amount ever granted for emotional trauma resulting from air turbulence. “The message is,” says their attorney James P. Kreindler, “when an airline screws up and hurts its passengers, it has to pay.”

American called the amount “excessive,” arguing that no one was seriously injured and that all have gone on with their lives. But Spielberg says Jessica was treated for stress and that she herself was depressed, believing she was “a lousy mom” because she couldn’t protect her kids. For a time, her brother offered her use of his private jet (“He’s been great”). Instead, she has cut back her travel. As for the money the airline must pay her, says Spielberg—$540,000 for herself and her children—”I’d rather they keep it and take back what happened.”

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