Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

As predicted, news gets in the way of my well-crafted plans!

Today, Congress starts hearings on the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson," the landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15, 2008. Congress apparently wants to know what went wrong (e.g. why did geese bring down a plane?) and what went right (e.g. how did the plane manage to land on the river successfully and everyone get off with only one serious injury and no deaths).

This is a great opportunity for the Monday Morning Crisis Quarterback to review this incident from a Critical Incident Stress Management point of view. It's important to note that I have no idea what services were offered to the crew or passengers following this incident. I have to imagine the crew got something from the airline, although I do know that US Airways, because it is not hooked into the Association of Airline Pilots, did not get support through their CISM team.

The thing that might surprise you (or maybe it doesn't) is that, according to news reports, both the crew and the air traffic controller who was responsible for the flight suffered serious traumatic stress symptoms following this incident. The flight attendants reported not being able to even consider putting on their uniforms afterwards. One didn't return to work for a month or more and another, who was the injury on the flight, didn't return at all.

On the face of this you might be surprised that someone could be traumatized in an incident where nobody died. But, in fact, someone actually dying isn't all that great a predictor of traumatic stress. What is a good predictor, however, is the individual believing that he or she was going to die. And certainly the crew had every reason to fear that they were about to die. Water landings are not generally successful. That's why this was the "miracle on the Hudson." And even if the crew had hope they would make it, the notion that someone was going to die had to have been on their minds.

It's entirely possible their stress symptoms would have been worse if someone had died, but not necessarily. One of the key questions we ask in CISM is "what is the worst part of this for you?" and the answers are sometimes surprising. What really sticks with one person is not what sticks with another.

Another interesting case here is the air traffic controller. I heard an interview with him on the radio recently, and he pointed out that while everyone else was celebrating the successful landing, he was off in a corner thinking he had just lost a plane. The last thing he heard was Captain Sullenberger telling him they were going into the Hudson. That's not good. He had responsibility for all of 145 passengers on board and all of the crew, and as far as he knew they were dead. He said he actually didn't believe it when someone told him they had made it. Again, the stressful issue wasn't what happened, it was what he believed was going to happen.

I have to imagine that the recovery of all of these folks was complicated by the fact that they were being celebrated as heroes. On the one hand, they deserved the praise. On the other hand, they probably weren't feeling like heroes, they were feeling like a quivering mess. And no one expected them to be having trouble, which makes it harder to get the support you need. I hope they got it, and I hope they're doing well. They did a great job, but that doesn't make it easy.

As an aside, I note in the CNN story that Congress is having only one passenger testify, and that they found many conflicting accounts from the passengers about what happened. This in itself is a stress symptom. All of these passengers, who also believed they were going to die, focused in a very tunneled way on what was important to them. Time slowed and they lost focus on what they perceived as extraneous events. They aren't dumb, they aren't lying and they don't have bad memories, their brains just did not encode all of what happened properly. That's a defense mechanism -- anything that wasn't important to keeping them alive got pushed aside. I hope these folks got some CISM support as well, if only to let them know they're not crazy.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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