TWA Flight 800 - Disaster Response: A Psychologist's Experiencee
Joseph Abraham, Ph.D.

A week before the TWA Flight 800 crash I had been speaking with the coordinator for the New York State Psychological Association Disaster/Crisis Response Network. We were scheduling a second training session for First Aid and CPR for the following Saturday, July 20. I had been telling her that although I had received the training for disaster response, I had never participated in an actual response, due to my work schedule. I mentioned to her that I was more readily available during the summer months. The next Thursday morning she called, advising me that TWA Flight 800 had crashed off the Long Island coast. She asked me to go out to the East Moriches Command Center where recovery efforts were underway.

I drove into East Moriches at 9:30 A.M. on a clear but hot Thursday morning. The weather was in stark contrast to the morbid scene I was anticipating. I had heard that bodies were being brought into the East Moriches Coast Guard station which was designated as the Command Center. As I approached this small Long Island town, I could feel the tension and apprehension within me mounting. On Atlantic Avenue, I made a right turn and was immediately stopped and requested to show identification. This occurred at almost every intersection for the remainder of the trip down to the shore line. As I approached the beach area, there were numerous T.V. news crews setting up their communication systems in a field. I passed the last identification site, parked my car and reported to the Red Cross team leader.

My directions were to work with the Red Cross staff as well as the Civil Defense members. On the site there were numerous agencies present ie. FBI, ATF, as well as local police agencies. Surprisingly things were relatively calm at the site. People mulled around waiting for their assignments; people rested on cots which were set up on the porch; Red Cross workers served beverages and food. In addition to the numerous police agencies, there were also divers, Coast Guard crews, helicopter pilots and government officials.

As a mental health worker, it was my job to speak to the Red Cross and Civil Defense workers in order to assess their stress levels and to enable them to express their feelings. If someone seemed particularly in need of a break, I would encourage them to take a few minutes for themselves. In mingling with the people on site, I had the opportunity to talk to Coast Guard and Merchant Marine crewmen who were retrieving victims. We sat on the porch and discussed their experience. The Coast Guard worker was very young, and appeared physically and emotionally exhausted. This experience was not one he had anticipated when he had joined. The Merchant Marine crewman was older and appeared resigned to performing the task at hand. I told him that I would be speaking with family members of the victims the next day. He said "Tell them that we're treating their loved ones with dignity and respect."

That evening, I received a call to report to the Ramada Plaza at JFK at 8:00 A.M. There was to be an orientation meeting followed by work with family members of the victims. I arrived early. People sat at tables in a large conference room, drinking coffee, juice and talking. The mood was somber. People spoke very quietly. Later in the morning the families were addressed by members of the National Traffic and Safety Bureau, as well as by the Medical Examiner's Office. The families' moods ranged from strong anger to deep despair. All wanted to know how and when the remains of their loved ones would be recovered. I spoke with a number of family members about their losses. The ability of these people to cope under such tragic circumstances was truly amazing. I spent two days at the Ramada. One of the major problems I encountered was the issue of how to approach family members without being intrusive to them in this time of despair and suffering.

As a result of this experience, I have learned that, for a mental health worker, a successful response to a disaster is very much influenced by the support of those in leadership positions. An appropriate orientation dealing with methods of approaching family members and opening discussion with them is critical. Being quickly assigned to specific and clearly defined tasks is essential. Having the opportunity to discuss your experiences with other mental health workers and with supervisory staff is an important aspect of disaster work. Keeping activities scheduled as close to their designated times is essential in maintaining a feeling of control and purpose. Letting family members know that you are available to them and advising them as to how they can arrange to speak with you can decrease the possibility of too many workers approaching the same family members. Keeping worker's daily time shifts in line with their normal working day prevents excessive exhaustion and emotional drain.

As a member of the Mental Health Team that responded to this disaster, I had the opportunity to provide support for people who were suffering severe emotional pain. An experience of this type enables the mental health worker to truly connect with that which is good in the human spirit, helping those in need at a time of crisis. The fulfillment that one can experience from such an opportunity is immense.

Dr. Joseph Abraham is a clinical and school psychologist in Long Island, New York and a member of The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. In his private practice, located in Hauppauge, he has had a great deal of experience treating individuals suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Dr. Abraham received his doctorate from Yeshiva University and post-doctoral training at the Advanced Institute for Analytic Psychotherapy.

©1996 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.

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