Nov. 2, 2000 -- Jim Kahl gets angry when he hears about airplane accidents like Tuesday’s crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006 that killed at least 81 of the 179 passengers aboard.
Kahl, who lives outside Pittsburgh, survived the 1989 crash of United flight 232 with his wife, Mary, and their then 14-year-old son, Jimmy. About an hour into the flight from Denver to Philadelphia, the DC-10 began a shaky descent and an eventual cartwheel into Sioux City, Iowa, where it burst into flames. One-hundred-and-twelve people were killed.
“I think when planes go down the CEOs and airline executives should be put in jail and then they will feel the consequences of what they have done,” says Kahl, who has vivid memories of the 45 minutes of plunging and bobbing before the crash.
“We knew we were in trouble,” he says. “There wasn’t any mass hysterical screaming like you see in the movies, just a lot of wide-eyed disbelief and some sobbing and praying. I was asking, ‘Why me?’”
While Kahl’s view about punishment seems to be a heartfelt response to his tragedy, most crashes are the result of a combination of technical problems and human errors, and rarely result in criminal charges.
Survivors Face Life Long Issues
Clearly, Kahl, like other survivors of airplane crashes, are irrevocably changed by the experience. While some survivors will fly again and a small study suggests accident survivors fare better mental health-wise than other airplane travelers, psychologists say many experience what is called “post traumatic stress disorder,” a cluster of psychological responses to the devastating event, such as nightmares and depression.
Lilli Friedland, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who has counseled survivors of plane crashes, says reactions vary depending on the person and how he or she has dealt with other traumas.
“Some experience survivor guilt, wondering why they were saved while others died,” she says. “Others feel there must have been a reason they were spared. They try to make sense of what happened.”
Andrea Van Steenhouse, a Denver, Colo.-based psychologist says surviving a crash is different from other losses in life.
Survivors Lose Trust in Life
“The death of a parent is expected,” Van Steenhouse explains. “But when a plane crashes it takes away the assumption, the faith, that we have in how safe our life is. It violates everything we want to believe in. I don’t think people can walk away unscathed in some way.”
After crashes, survivors often take advantage of psychological support from airlines and the Red Cross. Although some have acute reactions soon after the event, others don’t register their trauma for months.
Judy Fiore-Brazell also survived the United 232 crash, but her grandmother did not. The funeral was a week after the crash, and she went back to work a few days later. Fiore-Brazell soon realized, however, that she was having trouble dealing with the accident and sought psychological help. Today, she says she feels she has more or less coped with the trauma though the accident still haunts her at times.
Reactions may persist intermittently for the rest of a survivor’s life. Some survivors never allow themselves to be happy or will have bad dreams or intrusive thoughts during the day reliving the event, Friedland says. Inability to concentrate and extreme outbursts of anger also are common.
Having all these feelings can bring on a sense of immobilization and helplessness in which the body can become rigid, making it difficult even to breathe.
Reliving the Event Is Horrible
“The worst thing is to keep living over the event in your mind and not being able to stop it, “ explains Van Steenhouse. “You can be sitting and talking to someone and all of a sudden the crash unfurls in your mind again. A sound, a smell can trigger these thoughts. You feel like you are out of control.”
She says survivors might think they are going along, managing their life, but events like the Singapore Airlines crash can bring the devastation back.
Yet the ability of human beings to cope with tragedy is amazing, psychologists say. Researcher Gary Capobianco, of Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., looked at the psychological well-being of 15 airplane crash survivors and compared their current mental health status to eight frequent flyers. He found the survivors fared better regarding feelings of anxiety and depression in their lives.
Some Will Fly Again
In fact, survivors will actually fly again.
Kahl went to a hypnotist so he could overcome his fear of flying, especially since Jimmy lives in Alaska.
“My wife and I have come to accept that if we want to see our son we have to get on a plane, “ Jim says.
But the transition is not always so smooth.
After avoiding planes for four years, Jimmy recently flew home to attend his grandfather’s funeral. He was so horrified by his Alaska Airlines flight to Pennsylvania, that on his way home he took a train to Seattle and then a ferry to Juneau, a seven-day voyage.
Fiore-Brazell started flying again three years ago. “I was white-knuckled with fear,” she says. Careful about what planes she takes, she prefers to sit in aisle seats, will only fly during the day and doesn’t eat or drink during the flight.
Van Steenhouse is awed by survivors’ ability to cope: “Sometimes, Mother Nature provides us with a denial mechanism that is marvelous.”
Ephrat Livni contributed to this story.