My first interaction with someone who performed the duties of a family liaison was in 1999. I was 17 years old and my family had gone to the airport to pick up my sister, who was returning with her university choir from a singing tour in eastern Europe. I was excited – there was something very cool about picking up your sister from an international trip in my teenage years. As this was before 9/11, we were allowed to wait at the gate for her arrival. Just before she was due to land, a horrible hail storm began to pelt the runway. It was so thick we couldn’t see thirty yards past the window. As we waited, the group of family members and friends began to get palpably anxious. When the plane landed about thirty minutes after its planned arrival time, we could barely see the lights of the plane, but we could tell it had landed too quickly.
Without being told what had happened, the waiting family members and friends were herded into a movie theatre across the street from the airport. You can imagine the rising panic my parents must have felt as we drove our car to the movie theatre parking lot. In the reception area of the theatre a representative from the airline tried to gather us into one large group to deliver the bad news. I can’t remember exactly how many people there were (this is a common feature of traumatic memory) but it was a significantly large group. The airline representative was alone, and she was very obviously not comfortable being our authority for the knowledge she was given to tell. The message was short: there had been a crash upon landing. When the group began to demand answers, she paled under the onslaught and refused to give any more information, though it was obvious she was holding back.
It seemed like a long time later when the first group of passengers was shuttled to the theatre on a minibus. There were less than fifteen of them in the first group – out of the 145 passengers on the plane. When my sister’s friend from the choir descended from the bus steps, our worst fears were realized. He was the first to communicate that there were casualties as he himself had unsuccessfully tried to save the pilot.
Bus after bus shuttled the uninjured to the movie theatre. The were all in varying stages of shock – some not even aware of their surroundings. The airline representative – our only liaison the to the airline and to the bigger picture, let information slip only accidentally, finally caving under pressure to attempt an updated list of passengers who were taken to hospitals. My sister’s name was never on the list.
At seventeen, I already couldn’t stand sitting still with so much anxiety. A group of family members found a phone in the theatre gift shop and we each took turns calling our relatives. I called my aunt, who was local and very familiar with the area hospitals. We split up the list of hospital contact numbers and began calling. The first hospital I called immediately switched me to the hospital PR personnel. I’ll always remember that she sensed my panic and told me to breathe. After I had sufficiently calmed down to talk, I gave her the five names of the people this small group needed to find. Two of them she confirmed. She then gave me direct numbers to the other hospital PR professionals. I found the remaining people but not my sister. When a passenger who alighted told my mother she had seen my sister loaded into an ambulance with other passengers who had suffered burns, my aunt realized she had been taken to Children’s Hospital – the hospital with the biggest burn unit. From there I don’t remember much other than my sister’s anguished face in the hospital. She had been in the row of seats closest to those who died.
Most of my work is personal – it’s what gives me the motivation to get up every day and meet new clients. It’s also why I believe that the family liaison training is so important. If the airline representative had known even the most basic of family liaison work, a lot of secondary trauma could have been prevented that day. Families would have reunited faster, the safety and mental health of the passengers and the families would have been prioritized, and the reputation of the airline would be much different today. I sincerely hope that none of the organizations I work with ever have a reason to deliver bad news to a waiting family member. But, one day, if it’s necessary, I hope you feel prepared to care for those who work for you and their families. Because believe me, it makes all the difference in the world.
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