Sunday, March 7, 2010

All Trauma is Personal

On February 17 at about 8 AM, a small plane carrying three employees of Tesla Motors crashed on takeoff from Palo Alto Airport into a residential neighborhood in East Palo Alto, California.  All three people on board were killed, but miraculously no one on the ground was injured.  The ensuing fire damaged buildings and scorched the pavement of the street.

Frequent Quarterbacker Mike Miller, a longtime friend of mine, suggested shortly thereafter that I blog about the crash.  I will admit that I wasn't particularly intrigued.  I didn't have an "angle."  Planes crash.  Some privileged techies crashing into a much less privileged neighborhood did not make me want to blog about their survivors, harsh as that might seem. 

For Mike, on the other hand, this was a very interesting story.  Mike's father was a pilot for United Airlines for many years, and at one time he, too, aspired to be an airline pilot.  He flew small planes and loved aviation, even after his career plans shifted and he became an attorney.  I flew with him only once, the medication I took to avoid motion sickness putting me to sleep in the back seat of his plane as my stomach churned nonetheless.

Mike also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where this was a big story.  To him, there was a lot to consider about this story, from the trauma it posed for the families to what it meant for other pilots like himself.  He had a personal connection to this incident in a way I never would.

Today's San Jose Mercury News has a story about the East Palo Alto neighborhood where the plane crashed last month.  The residents don't feel very safe right now, and one can hardly blame them.  The sky pretty literally fell on them, and they have no reassurance that it won't happen again.  The sound of every plane engine is a reminder of what happened and a trigger for their trauma reactions.  They look up with trepidation and wonder when the next plane will come down.  In a city rocked by gang violence, it is a plane crash that has residents thinking of moving out.

Usually I get my news stories from Google, the New York Times or suggestions from friends.  The article about this neighborhood did not cross my radar from any of these sources.  I was on the Mercury News website today looking to see if Mike Miller's obituary had been posted yet.  He died on Monday at the age of 39 after a truly spirited battle with melanoma.  He never got to read about the story he suggested, the story that was so personal to him, in this space.  Oddly enough, reading the article was a trigger for me, not because of the crash itself but because of Mike.  His memory is a blessing.


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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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