Saturday, October 17, 2009

Assigning Blame in a Circular Firing Squad

In June of 2007, a University of Michigan Survival Flight crashed into Lake Michigan, killing the pilot, co-pilot and four members of a medical transplant team which was transporting human organs to patients in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The local community here in Ann Arbor, where U of M is a major fixture and a major employer, took this crash very personally. It was covered very much as "our story," and we all struggled to understand how something had gone so wrong with a medical provider who we all consider to be good, particularly when it comes to transplants.

This past Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings on the crash. They found that the pilot mishandled a problem shortly after takeoff, the co-pilot was poorly prepared and got in the way of an emergency landing, the carrier did not address safety issues and the FAA did not properly force the carrier to address those issues.

On Friday, the pilot's family issued its own statement, fiercely rejecting the NTSB findings. They believe a mechanical problem caused the crash, and they are suing Cessna, the maker of the airplane. In a statement, they said,
the NTSB's depiction of Capt. William Serra reflects the myopic view often induced by the search for scapegoats rather than causes for accidents.

By way of disclaimer, I should say that I know absolutely nothing about the technical aspects of aviation. I know how to make a reservation and find the cheapest price for a flight, and I let the professionals handle the rest. What interests me about this story is the family's accusation that, in the wake of a crash, the NTSB is looking for someone to blame.

It is certainly the case that, following a tragedy, we naturally tend to try to find fault somewhere. We are naturally wired to find patterns in the world, and random events are extraordinarily uncomfortable for us. Random events cannot be predicted and cannot be avoided, and that terrifies us. So we look for someone to blame. If we can't find someone outside of ourselves, we will blame ourselves. So yes, the investigation of a crash is, in part a search for a someone to blame.

For the family of the pilot, the search for blame is a little different. They, too, are hoping to find a reason for what happened. But since their experience is that this event happened to their loved one, they are going to be extraordinarily reluctant to blame him for what happened. They have assigned fault to the manufacturer of the plane.

What's interesting to me is that the family is accusing the NTSB of looking for a scapegoat when, in fact, they appear to be doing the same thing. It's possible the NTSB is wrong. It's possible the family is wrong. It's possible both are wrong, and it's possible both are right. But it certainly is the case that both the NTSB and the family have very good, healthy reasons to be pointing fingers. Adding to that by accusing the other of simply wanting to blame someone is, in the end, the pot calling the kettle black.


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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
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