WW96 September 2, 2020 – A Flight Attendant Looks Back on How the Crash of Delta 191 Changed Her Life and Contributed to the Greater Good

Wednesday Wisdom Series September 2, 2020
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September 2, 2020

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

A Flight Attendant Looks Back on How the Crash of Delta 191 Changed Her Life and Contributed to the Greater Good

The purpose of the journey is compassion. When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion.

-Joseph Campbell, American Philosopher

  Last month’s awareness@work article referenced the 35th anniversary of the crash of Delta Flight 191 and its influence on the development of Care and Special Assistance Teams. The article also referred to other advancements in physical and emotional safety for survivors that began after the accident. This month’s survivor article broadens the term’s definition to include employees who work for the company and highlights improvements for their support.

    Raising compassion consciousness is a fundamental goal of the Foundation. Understanding the impact of a workplace tragedy on the employees of the corporation is essential in offering a true compassionate response—regardless of the industry. This month’s survivor story is from a retired Delta Flight Attendant and sheds light on two themes which we believe are essential to increasing compassion.

    First, the ripple[1] which refers to the enormous number of survivors left in the wake of an airline crash, impossible to quantify. And secondly, secondary trauma, or indirect exposure to a traumatic event—which many employees face while not on the aircraft at the time of the crash.

    Sandra Novak had been flying for Delta for fifteen years when the crash occurred. The Delta Air Lines 191 pilot and flight attendant crews worked out of the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport, where Sandra was based. She was part of a large team of flight attendants and pilots who flew the same series of destinations monthly. This pattern included Flight 191 which originated in Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport with a stop in Dallas/Ft. Worth. The flight terminated in Los Angeles, CA. The pairings of the crews change monthly, meaning that employees work together with virtually the entire team at one time or another on different days of the month.

    Below are Sandra’s responses to the same questions passenger and family member survivors have answered.

1. CVC: When you learned of the tragic events of Delta crash 191, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective? 

SN: It took a long time to derive spiritual meaning from the crash of Delta Flight 191. I had a very close connection with most of the flight attendants onboard, the captain was one of the first pilots I had flown with, and many passengers were close fellow employees.

    Looking back now, I realize I was in shock and all I heard was, It cant be Delta, Delta does not have plane crashes.” Unraveling all the stories of my peers and passengers left me broken and afraid. I was more interested in surviving the pain than trying to understand what the universe was up to. Only in time was I able to give spiritual meaning to that horrible tragedy.


2. CVC: Where did you get the best emotional support in the first few weeks?

SN: I definitely got my emotional support from my peers. Delta tried to help us, but all of us were over our heads in shock and grief. Delta Flight 191 crashed before there were Care Teams. No one had a plan. Later my support and help came from a therapist.

    Today, I am a trauma therapist. There is no greater joy than to be able to help another through tragic pain. And from a spiritual perspective, there is nothing more humbling


3A. CVC: What actions did you take to finish the business of the accident?

SN: The business seemed to never end. I attended the funerals for the flight attendants. It was horrible to have to decide if you could get to a city in time for a funeral because you are attending another funeral in another city.

3B. CVC: What actions did you take to regain control over your life?

SN: Next came going back to work. How do you get back on that airplane and do your job? That fateful day changed everything forever, for me.

    Years later, one of our severely injured passengers became irate when she attempted to board a flight where there were no available seats. Three or four of the flight attendants were in tears, they all wanted to help her. I realized that we all had experienced 191 and the pain transcended words. That kind of loss touches your soul.

3C. CVC: Did you receive any counseling?

SN: Yes, I went to therapy. I later enrolled in graduate school. I wanted to empower myself and help others be able to do the same. 

4. CVC: Did you need to forgive anyone? Who?

SN: Forgiveness was not an issue for me. I knew everyone had done their best. Wind shear is a horrible force.

5. CVC: What have you done to create from this experience?

SN: I have been creative by learning how to help people who have experienced different kinds of trauma and loss. My first love is teaching and working with Care Teams.

    I also enjoy helping children. They experience and express trauma so differently. We are beginning to get some things right in working with children or adults who were abused as children. Severe sexual abuse is rarely treated properly. So, there is a lot of work to be done—and I enjoy doing it.   


6. CVC: Have you integrated the experience into your life? What did you leave behind, and what do you carry with you?

SN: Flight 191 will always be with me. Today, in a good way. The sweet memories of those lost always remind me to do good work for those that are not able, when tragedy strikes. I leave behind judgement of others and embrace the growth the world has to offer.


7. CVC: How do you remain connected?

SN: The flight attendants that went through Delta 191 together will always be connected. When we see each other, there is a special bond that goes unspoken. We all know it is there. I have a framed poem on my wall written by one of the flight attendants who died that day. We will always be connected.

Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.

-Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW

Dare to Lead

    In December of 1972, the first L-1011 aircraft crashed--Eastern Airlines Flight 401, went down in the Miami Everglades, taking the lives of 101 passengers and crew. Like Delta 191, the pilots died along with two of the ten flight attendants on board. Of the eight who lived, five came back to flying within one year. They were met with a lack of understanding and the absence of compassion on the part of their leadership.

I had a very close connection with most of the flight attendants onboard, the captain was one of the first pilots I had flown with and many passengers were close fellow employees.

-Sanda Novak, MSW

    Today, training for Care and Special Assistance teams includes a discussion of the ripple, or the very large group of people who are impacted by a crisis such as plane crashes or other mass tragedy events in the workplace. The ripple includes secondary survivors who are in need of validation and support—and understanding from all, especially their management.[2]

 &nnbsp;  Secondary or vicarious trauma, results from indirect exposure to a traumatic event—as in the case of Sandra who felt personally connected to the flight attendants, the captain, and many of the passengers on board the flight.

I definitely got my emotional support from my peers. Delta tried to help us, but all of us were over our heads in shock and grief.

-Sandra Novak, MSW

    In the days of crashes, such as Eastern Flight 401 and Delta Flight 191, little was known about the effects of secondary trauma experienced by those in the ripple. Unaware of their employees’ needs, more than one manager missed an opportunity to save a crash survivor’s career.

I then enrolled in graduate school. I wanted to empower myself and help others be able to do the same. 

-Sandra Novak, MSW

    An example of the growth of awareness of secondary trauma and the significance of the ripple became apparent in the aftermath of Swissair 111, which crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, September 2, 1998. The fatal crash resulted in the loss of all 229 souls on board, which included 58 Delta passengers and one of their flight attendants. Delta worked alongside Swissair leadership to assist all families who were impacted.

    In addition to sending hundreds of their employees to assist families of the deceased, Delta deployed a large number of employees as part of a peer support program for their Care Teams and all of their workers on site. Sandra, now having earned her master’s degree in clinical social work was on the peer support team deployed to support her fellow employees.

    In addition to peer support, through the Employee Assistance Program, Delta offered counseling for as long as was needed by their employees. As further validation for their work and dedication, one year after the crash, employees received a thank you card from the company leadership team bearing a sketch of the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, where the families and employees gathered near the site of the crash. The card also bore a poem written by someone directly impacted by the crash.

    And to formally recognize the entire corporate ripple, on the first anniversary, at the exact minute of the accident, throughout the airline’s global system, a moment of silence was held in honor of the deceased—and for all who were connected to the crash.

    Great strides have been made in support and assistance of survivors. Future articles will add to our appreciation of the ripple and the evolution of this field. The poem Sandra mentioned earlier given to her before the crash follows:


                  Know the beauty of sharing,

                  Know the feel of music,

                  Experience the happiness in memories,

                  Let your heart wear a smile,

                  Know faith has no end,

                  Learn the beauty of caring,

                  Find love in the world.


[1] Coarsey, C.V. 2004, Handbook for Human Services Response

[2] Ibid. See pages 253-341 for a more complete listing of the ripple associated with mass casualty events involving corporate employees, responders and the community.

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