Saturday, December 19, 2009

2,000 People Trapped in the Chunnel: How Not to Handle a Crisis

Five trains between France and England broke down under the English Channel on Saturday, trapping about 2,000 passengers for up to 16 hours.  Whether this sounds like a particularly bad situation or just a travel mishap to you probably depends on your familiarity with the "Chunnel" trains and/or whether you are at all claustrophobic.  I myself try very hard not to think about it when I'm taking a tunnel under a large body of water, because I know that if I do I will freak out.  I think 16 hours would give me a little bit too much time to think about the water above me.

The trip from Paris to London (or vice versa) usually takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  No one gets on one of those trains with the idea that they will need food, water, pillows, blankets or significant amounts of medicine.  No one plans to spend the night.  Making matters worse, the trains apparently were carrying large numbers of children coming back from Disneyland Paris.  There was no power on the trains and hence no temperature controls -- some stories report temperatures of 104 degrees Farhenheit while others report that passengers were very cold.  The toilet facilities on the trains are not designed to accomodate this many people for this long, and they started to overflow.  It was dark, there was no water, and people started to get sick.

If you read the accounts of this event given by passengers when they finally got off the train, there is one theme that runs through all of them.  The lack of communication from Eurostar, the company that operates the train, and from train and rescue staff, left a lot of people very upset:
There was no communication at all.
They kept changing their story, so we didn't know what to believe.
We’d been sat trapped in a train for four hours and no one told us what was going on.
The driver locked himself in the ­engine room and we were knocking on the door asking what was going on – you could just hear him inside, crying. Passengers were getting very angry.
All we were told on the intercom was to ‘inhale less and keep seated’.
Someone came round and told us to stop breathing heavily because there wasn’t enough oxygen for everyone.
Staff just didn't seem to be telling people what was happening.
Staff are pleasant but have no idea.
It was an utterly disgraceful service and the lack of communication was unforgiveable.
It beggars belief in terms of the lack of organisation, incompetence and lack of information on the part of Eurostar.
The lack of communication caused people to become a lot more distressed than necessary,
We weren't ever told a huge amount of what was going on, the information was so vague.
Throughout this entire ordeal there was almost no information, no customer care and no help or advice.
Communication was the main problem, there were lots of confusing messages.
There was very, very poor communication from the staff.

During a major crisis, it's not unusual for a company or organization to "circle the wagons."  They don't want the wrong information to get out, and they want to limit the damage caused by the incident.  The result is that they don't say anything to anyone until they are very sure of what they are saying.  We experience this in big and small ways every day -- an airline doesn't tell you your plane will be late even though you can tell the plane you're leaving on hasn't arrived; the police have "no comment" when it is completely obvious they are focusing in on a single suspect; the cable company tells you your call is important to them, but not how long you'll have to stay on the line.

There are certainly times when this lack of information may be necessary, as in the police investigation above.  However, it is not necessary nearly as often as it is used.  Organizations can afford to share a lot more information than they are naturally inclined to, but it takes some skill.  A good example of what not to do is in the employees who were suggesting that people not breathe so much on the trains.  There is honesty, and then there is tactlessness.

Imagine, though, if the train staff had said,
We know this is very upsetting.  We are doing everything we can to get you out of here.  Right now, however, we do not know how long that is going to take.  We apologize, and we will let you know when we have more information.
Would that have made everyone calm and happy?  Probably not.  But it would have given people one less thing to be angry and stressed about.  It would have eliminated the perception that information was out there and wasn't being shared, and the fear that things were much worse than Eurostar was letting on.  This experience would still have been truly awful, but perhaps it wouldn't have been so traumatic.


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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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