Remembering children's needs in the wake of a plane crash


February 16, 2000|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON JAN. 31, Alaska Air Flight 261 crashed off the coast of Ventura County, Calif., taking the lives of all 88 people on board. Within hours of the crash, Wilde Lake resident Betsy Fisher received a call to fly to Los Angeles to help grieving families.

The trained disaster child caregiver was a member of the Child Care in Aviation Incident Response (CAIR) team assigned to the case. Other CAIR team volunteers, working with the American Red Cross, came from Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and California.

"I feel that being on a disaster scene to care for the youngest victims is a gift to me," Mrs. Fisher, 78, says. "This is part of my mission and ministry."

Before leaving her house, Mrs. Fisher stopped in the kitchen to cook a fresh batch of play dough, a staple in her Kit of Comfort. CAIR volunteers are required to keep a suitcase ready with materials for children -- toys, books, arts and crafts supplies -- for their disaster relief missions.

Mrs. Fisher helped staff a child care center set up by the Red Cross in a Los Angeles hotel.

Children, from toddlers to teens, enjoyed finger-painting with shaving cream, books and toys while their parents attended briefings and memorial services, knowing their children were cared for.

In a disaster's aftermath, Mrs. Fisher said, "Sometimes, the kids get lost in the shuffle." With the CAIR team's services, she said, "Parents aren't distracted and they know their kids are safe."

For one week, Mrs. Fisher and other volunteers offered play opportunities and a sympathetic ear to 44 children at the center.

"If the kids want to talk, they know we are there to listen," she said, "but it's nothing that we press. Mostly, they have fun."

Some children used art to express their fear and grief over what had happened. Mrs. Fisher recalls that one 6-year-old child drew a picture of her grandparents with tears coming out of their eyes.

"They lost their only son," the little girl told Mrs. Fisher.

Another child drew a picture of a broken airplane.

In response to the TWA flight 800 tragedy, in which 230 were killed after a jetliner exploded off Long Island, N.Y., Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act in 1996. The act gave the National Transportation Safety Board the additional responsibility of aiding families of victims of aircraft accidents in the United States.

The Red Cross has been designated by the NTSB as the agency responsible for coordinating child care, medical and mental health services offered to victims' families.

The 26 members of the CAIR team were selected from disaster child care personnel trained by Church of the Brethren Emergency Response Disaster Child Care Services, a nonsectarian group in New Windsor. The volunteers receive additional training before being assigned to an on-call CAIR team.

Mrs. Fisher, with 20 years of experience as a nursery school and kindergarten teacher, assisted in disaster child care after Hurricane Floyd in Greenville, N. C., in October and in Miami after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Mrs. Fisher's husband, Oral, was a United Methodist pastor. The couple were married 40 years before his death in 1987.

Mrs. Fisher has three grown children, Cynthia Reiffen of Hickory Ridge, Sharon Fisher of Delaware and Fred Fisher of Massachusetts.

She is grandmother to Ben and Lisa Reiffen of Hickory Ridge, and Sachi and Orion Kobayashi of Delaware.

The CAIR team is hoping to recruit more volunteers. With only 26 people serving, "we're really strained right now," Mrs. Fisher said.

People interested in applying for Disaster Child Care Response training can write to Lydia Walker, Emergency Response Service Ministries, Church of the Brethren General Board, 601 Main St., P. O. Box 188, New Windsor 21778-0188.

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