Federal laws are designed to ease families' burdens

Areas include counseling, notification, transportation

The Crash Of Flight 990

November 02, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

EgyptAir rented a hotel in Providence, R.I., yesterday and staffed it with grievance counselors and interpreters. It bought plane tickets for family members to gather from around the world near the site where its Boeing 767 crashed into the ocean Sunday, even chartering flights to bring relatives from Cairo.

"Our main concern and priority is the welfare of the families," said Jessica O'Keefe, EgyptAir's East Coast sales manager. "We're doing everything we can."

But much of what EgyptAir is doing is required by federal law.

After a series of poorly handled air disasters, including some in which victims' remains were mishandled and family members were mistreated, the federal government has crafted a series of strict, specific guidelines in recent years that require airlines to make crashes easier for family members to bear.

They must establish a toll-free telephone number to provide details about the crash. They are expected to buy plane tickets, hotel rooms and child care for family members who want to visit the crash scene -- even for a family friend, so no one has to grieve alone.

They must establish counseling centers at airports on both ends of the ill-fated flight, and staff them with employees trained in crisis response and "death notification." They are responsible for finding family members and telling them their relatives were on the plane.

The airlines coordinate memorial services with the Red Cross, catalog personal effects and help gather dental records -- all because of federal requirements.

"It's light-years ahead of what a carrier would have provided before," said Frank Carven, a Bel Air resident whose sister and nephew died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

"Nothing will really take away the grief, but it would have made our lives so much easier," said Carven, who tried for five hours just to get through to the airline by phone that night. "It's an incredibly stressful thing to experience."

After a commuter airline crash in 1994, relatives complained that the airline incinerated the victims' personal belongings and conducted a mass burial of remains without telling family members, according to Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Now airlines must guarantee the return of personal effects within 18 months of a crash and coordinate with family members for memorial services and airline-sponsored monuments.

Family members of victims in a 1992 crash said that after some relatives sought grief counseling, the airline tried to use it against them in court as evidence that they were emotionally unstable, Hall said.

Now airlines must provide grief counseling and reimburse the American Red Cross for whatever counseling services the organization provides.

After the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, a New York newspaper reporter allegedly gained access to a private prayer service by representing herself as a family member. Now, airlines are required to shield relatives of the victims from media and solicitors.

Hall was among those who sought the changes, after hearing a flood of complaints from families after air disasters.

"They told me of the lack of information, untimely notification, misidentified remains, personal effects being mishandled, unidentified remains not being handled with dignity," Hall said in an address to airline officials late last year. "In short, at a time when they most needed guidance, assistance and compassion, they felt abandoned and, in some cases, abused."

Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act in 1996, creating the Office of Family Affairs under the NTSB.

Then Korean Air Flight 801 crashed in Guam in 1996, and the airline didn't have an emergency response plan because it was a foreign carrier. Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act in 1997, refusing foreign airlines access to the United States unless they had an appropriate accident-response plan.

Another much-heralded improvement to disaster-response procedures has been the Department of Transportation's mandate that carriers request full names of all passengers on international flights -- not just first initials -- and that they ask for contact numbers in case of emergency.

When EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed Sunday, the airline had a manifest detailing all 217 people on board, including contact numbers, O'Keefe said. Two years ago, the airline would have been forced to piece together the information from boarding documents and ticketing information, risking the misidentification of a victim.

"No one did it before it became a requirement," she said.

When Carven finally reached the airline on the night TWA Flight 800 crashed, the representative had no information and told him to wait for a phone call. His sister Paula Carven, 42, and her 9-year-old son, Jay, were on board.

"My family and I stayed up all night watching TV, and that's how we knew there were no survivors. We never did get a call back," said Carven, who testified before Congress in support of the new laws.

"I headed up to New York with a knapsack that had a T-shirt and a toothbrush in it. I had no idea what to expect.

"Just to talk to someone who could tell you where to go, what to expect. It really would mean something at a time like that."

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