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Untrained Employees, the Unsung Heroes
Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey. Ph.D.
August 19, 2020
August 2, 2020, marked the 35th year since the crash of Delta Air Lines Flight 191 and the beginning of documented awareness of the power that employees have in influencing the way survivors of their company's accidents recover emotionally and psychologically. Many improvements in physical safety also came about following August 2, 1985, including the on-board radar wind-shear detectors that became standard equipment on airliners in the mid-1990s.
...kindness from employees toward survivors has been around much longer—undoubtedly since the first airline accident.
While awareness that airline employee response can influence survivors’ recovery was proven in my doctoral study, kindness from employees toward survivors has been around much longer—undoubtedly since the first airline accident. As a tribute to employees who have acted instinctively to help survivors, often risking their jobs, this article looks back at a few examples provided during interviews with survivors of accidents, long before airline accident response became legislated.
Early Personal Experience
I knew that because of the interconnections between those on board, and employees on the ground, these tragedies resulted in a significant “kinship of sorrow.”
As an employee of a major airline in the seventies where three fatal crashes occurred, I became aware of my own and many employees' emotions in the aftermath of these tragedies. As employees, we were impacted by the deaths and life-long injuries of the passengers, crew, and family members of employees on board. From the inside, I always knew that there was never a “we” (company employees) vs. “them” (members of the public) as many defense attorneys like to claim. I knew that because of the interconnections between those on board and employees on the ground, these tragedies resulted in a significant “kinship of sorrow.”
While walking the floor of the Delta Air Lines terminal at Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX that Friday evening, I knew that while the employees on duty were untrained to help me, many would have offered support if they knew what to do and were empowered to do so. When I approached my doctoral dissertation committee two years later about developing a program to empower and train employees to assist in the aftermath of a crash, the idea was met with resistance and discouragement. The consensus from my university academic committee was that airline employees would only cause harm to any survivor they approached in the aftermath of a crash.
Their prejudice toward employees was discouraging, but at the time, I had no data with which to dissuade them.
Reluctantly, my committee allowed me to attempt a study in which I would assess symptoms of the five disorders associated with trauma and compare the number of symptoms to survivor perception of response by three groups of responders. The groups included EMTs, paramedics and other first responders on the scene, hospital and other clinical personnel including counselors, and airline employees. Survivors were to provide a number one through five, which represented their perceptions of employee response.
Those on my committee who believed that employees would be harmful at all costs, questioned the use of the scale, as they felt all of the scores would be on the low end. Their prejudice toward employees was discouraging, but at the time, I had no data with which to dissuade them.
The academic committee cautioned me about the challenges in finding a large enough sample of survivors for formal study. I knew the only way I would be able to find an acceptable sample would be to include accidents that occurred in a relatively short time period where there were several common factors.
After a great deal of work on my part, the dissertation committee accepted my proposal to include six airline accidents that happened on or above US soil, and occurred during two years (1987-1989), where there was at least one death, and a minimum of one survivor.
My belief about the naturally occurring compassion of employees toward survivors was confirmed. The real surprise for me was that the feelings were mutual.
After obtaining names and addresses of passengers who survived the accidents from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) docket in Washington, DC, I mailed letters explaining the study and consent forms for those who chose to participate, for their signature and return. I also provided my telephone number for those who might want to learn more about the study before agreeing to the interview. Within a few days, I began to receive calls. Several came from survivors concerned about being in the study, because their stories about the airline employees were only positive. Perhaps because of negative bias by the press toward the airline in many situations, they did not understand my intent—-to let the data speak, regardless of the outcome.
After a few interviews, my belief about the naturally occurring compassion of employees toward survivors was confirmed. The real surprise for me was that the feelings were mutual.
John Doe I, John Doe II and Jane Doe I
One of the first calls came from a woman whose two sons died in a crash on takeoff in 1987, the first crash in the study. Her older son was four at the time of his death. Her younger son was under two and sitting on her lap at the time of the impact. The survivor sustained severe head injuries and therefore unable to provide information to the responders.
Admitted to the hospital as John Doe 1 & 2, and Jane Doe 1--several hours would pass before their true identity was known. I had previously read about them in media reports. I secretly hoped the mother would not participate in the study when I sent her the letter. I was afraid I would not know how to interview someone who sustained such enormous losses.
When the survivor reached me on the phone, it had been over four years since the crash. She told me she had no memory of the accident and subsequent recovery by the first responders--but wanted to help if she could. I assured her that anything she could remember after she woke up would be helpful. The survivor eagerly agreed to the interview.
After she responded to the questions for the diagnostic part of the interview, i.e., symptoms of psychological disorder, she then told me about her experience after awakening in the hospital. She did not remember boarding the aircraft, and tragically had no recall of her younger son. Her pre-crash memories seemed to have ended just before her the birth of her younger son.
Her husband remained with her during the five weeks while she remained unconscious. And on the day she awakened, it was he who informed her of their sons' deaths.
She remembered looking around the hospital room and being surprised by the balloons and stuffed animal toys in the room. Her husband explained that the toys and balloons came from the airline employees who visited daily. He said that several checked on her regularly and spent time with him and other family members who occasionally dropped in to see her. While it was not discussed, he knew they were visiting her on their own volition—this was long before Care Team programs began.
As is often true of head injury patients, the survivor endured many months of physical and other forms of therapy. When she was able to use a wheelchair, the medical team approved for her to take short trips away from the hospital. It was airline employees who took turns driving her to the park to enjoy the sunshine. On Sundays, they took her to mass at the nearby Catholic Church. As the months dragged on, and with little family close by, the employees took on the role of trusted helpers—albeit informal.
This survivor gave the employees a four on the five-point scale. She felt that all three responder groups did their best, and while the losses were too significant to warrant giving anyone a five, the airline employees were no more at fault than anyone else who helped her. She explained that the pilots had made a mistake, which resulted in tragic losses—but she felt it was not the fault of the employees who had demonstrated their concern for her. Both she and her husband were grateful to them.
No Ax to Grind
The last accident in the study involved a DC-10 crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in July 1989. One hundred-eleven people died when the aircraft cartwheeled down the runway while attempting to land, having lost an engine shortly after takeoff. Like the mother above, a passenger on the DC-10 called to tell me that she wanted to help with the study, but her concern was that since she had "no ax to grind", surely I did not wish to hear her story.
As with the other survivor, I told her that I needed to hear good stories wherever I could in order to learn what caused her to feel that way. She told me that after she survived the accident and was back home, she had written a letter to the president of the airline and thanked him for her life. She raved about the pilots and flight attendants who she felt saved her life, the first responders who rescued her and others, and the airline employees who brought her home safely.
Like the first survivor, this woman gave all three responder groups a high score. She was grateful for her life and wanted to do her part to validate and encourage all the employees for their caring service.
There were many other examples provided by survivors where my assumptions proved to be correct. That the stories were unsolicited and were volunteered by the interviewees contributed even more to the validity of my beliefs that employees were instinctively caring for survivors.
…many times things might have been different if employees knew for certain what was expected of them.
In interviews where the airline employees received low scores, the reasons were often related to matters outside the airline’s control, i.e. hospitals unable to place married couples in a room together, hotels unable to accommodate large numbers of people late at night and other examples.
As a former airline employee, I knew that many of the examples given where survivors felt the employee failed them, were more about lack of processes and procedures in place which would have empowered the employees to do their best. Many times things might have been different if employees knew for certain what was expected of them—as there were many mixed messages given by leaders who themselves were uncertain about what might be best.
Development of processes and procedures at airports, call centers, and throughout an airline’s system has come a long way in thirty-five years. The creation of Care and Special Assistance Teams throughout the world are specifically aimed at preventing many of the second assaults (unintended harms) which were reflected in the earlier interviews and low scores.
The Foundation's case study research has grown to include other industries, including cruise lines, rail, energy, manufacturing, retail companies, amusement parks, and other organizations.
Asking survivors their opinion about the employees' role in the aftermath of a tragedy in the workplace in formal studies began thirty-five years ago. These findings led to extensive training and empowerment of employee responders. The Foundation's case study research has grown to include other industries, including cruise lines, rail, energy, manufacturing, retail companies, amusement parks, and other organizations. These interviews point to the consistency in the power employees have in helping survivors during the dependency phase of trauma. A follow-up article will address advancements made in the physical safety side of trauma response.
 Eastern Airlines (EAL) Flight 401, Dec 29, 1972, Miami Everglades, 101 fatalities, 75 survivors; EAL Flight 212, Sept.11, 1974, Charlotte, NC, 72 fatalities, 10 survivors; EAL Flight 66, June 24, 1975, 113 fatalities,13 survivors.
 Coarsey, C.V., (2004) Handbook for Human Services Response
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