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Training warns crash teams of likely pitfalls

This article was published April 15, 2004 at 5:51 a.m.

— Lt. Col. Jeff Arnold talked about surviving American Airlines Flight 1420 with his buddies in the Alaska Army National Guard, with the schools that invited him to visit, with just about anyone who would listen. He had coped better than most.

When the plane crashed in Little Rock in a thunderstorm, just before midnight on June 1, 1999, Arnold was thrown from his eighth-row seat. His left ear was nearly torn off.

When he regained consciousness, he helped rescue fellow passengers from the burning plane. Then, waiting for the ambulances, he collected names. He gave lists to three different American Airlines workers, his name always at the top of the list.

Four days later, American Airlines' passenger-information line still had him as unaccounted for.

Two months after the crash and back home in Anchorage, Arnold contacted Alaska Airlines and asked to talk to their flight crews about what he had learned. He had been impressed with American's Customer Assistance Relief Effort Team, or CARE Team, which had been assigned to tend to the needs of survivors and victims' families. But he thought he could give his local airline some tips on how to do it even better.

Alaska Air videotaped Arnold's presentation to use in training its own CARE Team.

Less than six months later, in January 2000, Alaska Air Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific, killing all 88 aboard.

CARE Teams have been required by law since 1996, when Congress passed the Family Assistance Act after the explosion of TWA 800 off Long Island, N.Y., but American's program dates back to 1993. Alaska Air, Delta Air Lines and others have studied it. The Red Cross has praised it.

But until the trial of a damages lawsuit, brought by Flight 1420 survivor Nancy Chu, began two weeks ago in U.S. District Court, little was publicly known about how CARE Team workers are trained for their emotionally charged mission.

Chu and a worker assigned to her, Jim Struthers, began a love affair just days after the crash. Chu contends Struthers took advantage of her and seeks punitive damages against American for not training its CARE Team workers better.

Parts of American's training manual have been presented during the trial, and Struthers' notes have been entered into evidence.

In the hours after a crash, the company dispatches teams, usually a man and a woman, to work with each survivor or family.

The training manual is their guide on how to talk and communicate with distressed and sometimes angry people. According to the manual, "few disasters can match the incredible trauma of an aircraft accident."

The manual instructs workers not to be drawn into a conversation about money or what might have caused the crash. It tells them to communicate at eye level, to be on guard for a survivor who might become attached to them, to be careful about what they put down in their notes, which could end up as part of a lawsuit.

But there is no mention of intimate contact with survivors. "No one ever considered it was a possibility," CARE Team consultant Carolyn Coursey-Radar testified in the Chu trial.

Coursey-Radar has been paid $30,000 to help keep American's training materials fresh. To that end, she has been contacting Flight 1420 survivors to ask about their experiences, but some survivors said last week that she has not identified herself as being affiliated with the airline.

Until Struthers' notes in the Chu trial, CARE Team workers' notes have been "strictly off limits" in the legal proceedings that follow a crash, according to John Hotard, a corporate spokesman.

"The CARE Team is a protected relationship. We consider it a confidential one," he said. "We absolutely don't mine those notes."

The training manual instructs workers to keep a record of what is done for the survivor, but to "be careful about writing notes in front of people. Always explain what you are writing or else the passengers/families may become suspicious of your actions. Keep in mind that any documentation may be used in future litigation."

While the manual tells workers to protect the image of American's parent company, AMR Corp., and to limit liability, it goes on to say that it is not the CARE Team's job to dissuade any passenger from hiring a lawyer and tells workers not to take a lawsuit personally.

Tim Ahern, American's vice president of safety, testified last week that a CARE Team worker is something of a "concierge." He is there to retrieve baggage, make hotel or flight arrangements, buy food or clothing. He can pay for rental cars or arrange for limousine service, even make funeral arrangements. But he is not, the manual stresses, a counselor or therapist.

In the days after the crash of Flight 1420, American's CARE Team workers went so far as to accompany survivors to the crash site. Afterward, they delivered $25,000 "inconvenience" checks to each survivor.

They made clear that there were no strings attached. The manual instructs them to "avoid associating the payment of survivor/family member expenses with an admission of responsibility for the accident. In other words, do not say things like 'American Airlines will pay for new clothing and hotel accommodations because we feel so badly for causing this tragedy.' "

Overall, the survivors of Flight 1420 had few complaints about their CARE Team workers. Interviewed in the months after the crash, they described them as "genuine," "helpful," "caring" and "dedicated to making things better, to the extent they could."

But Hot Springs resident Salvador Ugartecha, who was in seat 17E, was suspicious of the workers assigned to him, afraid they were on a mission to find out anything they could about him. He worried they had bugged his home, and he threw away some of the furniture they had touched.

Almost all the survivors said they expected their workers to stay in touch. Few workers did.

Cabot resident Lisa Rowe, seat 14A, recalls her workers purchased meals for her mother while Rowe was hospitalized and secured a maid to come once a week while she was recovering from a bruised heart and injuries to her breast bone and a leg.

"The day I got out of the hospital, they suggested I ride home in an ambulance, that I'd be more comfortable. It was a bumpy ride, but they were nice. Once they dropped me off at home, I never heard from them again," said Rowe.

American's manual notes that, "in our experience, no one works a crash or other incident without developing emotional symptoms. The transition from CARE to home and normal life is a difficult one." The company instructs workers to disengage when the immediate crisis is past and provides a "critical incident debriefing" to ease that transition.

And it warns them that, above all, "don't think that you know what [the survivors] are feeling and experiencing -- you don't."

Copyright © 2001, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

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