The Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation (FAERF) has been at the forefront of the evolution of emergency management, combining the head-heart approach for a fully integrated response to survivors of traumatic loss. Practicing consciousness in the workplace involves caring for people first, without exception.

Studies Following Aloha Flight 243: Contributions to Emotional and Physical Safety for Survivors of Future Workplace Tragedies

Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.

April 2024

     This month’s article on the evolution of compassion consciousness in the workplace discusses how the Aloha Flight 243 accident investigation contributed to physical and emotional safety in the aviation industry.

     Thirty-six years ago this week, Flight Aloha 243, April 28, 1988, suffered extensive damage in flight caused by an explosive decompression. One flight attendant died, and 65 passengers were injured out of 95 souls on board.

     A review of the NTSB findings (see NTSB AAR 89/03) from the accident investigation shows its importance in learning about physical safety.  Due to the substantial damage inflicted by the decompression, the loss of one cabin crew member, and the safe landing of the aircraft established the accident as a significant event in the history of aviation, with far-reaching effects on aviation policies and procedures. Less known to the traditional safety world is that Aloha 243 met the criteria to be included in my doctoral dissertation.

Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996

    Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 ( became a reality in October of 1996, following two significant crashes that year – ValuJet Flight 592, May 11, and TWA 800, July 17. Despite published findings on the necessity for sufficient phone lines and improvement in the information flow between the air carrier and the families of those onboard the flights, the response by both airline companies showed the need for action on the part of the Federal government, thus the Act of 1996.    

     Harvard-educated psychiatrist Dr. Raquel Cohen, known for her work in establishing processes and procedures for natural disasters in the US, was asked by the Department of Transportation to write guidelines for an airline’s response protocol in assisting survivors in the aftermath of an accident. Dr. Cohen contacted me and asked if we might meet about the assignment as she felt she knew too little about airline accidents to tackle the assignment on her own. This led to a collaboration between us, and the inclusion of my dissertation research in the protocol of the Act. Aloha Flight 243 was the second accident in my study.

Subjective Passenger Accounts of the Airline Accidents

     My 440-page doctoral dissertation contains objective clinical data that established the relationship between the importance of survivor perception of employee response and how they recovered long-term. The discussion section also highlights many subjective accounts of the survivors’ experiences. 

    The question in the subjective accounting of the survivor’s experience that proved to be the most interesting to me personally asked: “Was there anything that later seemed unusual or ironic about your experience?” This question yielded many different responses and underscored a major tenet in Human Services Response (HSR)™ Training, which I wrote after the published clinical study – the need to withhold personal judgment and the importance of validating all survivor experiences. 

    After takeoff, I suddenly heard a “whooshing” noise, and the cabin filled with a dense fog. It was impossible to see clearly. As the fog dissipated, I saw blue skies above me and was horrified to see that the aircraft wall once beside me had disappeared. To my greater surprise, a man in a business suit was now sitting beside me in what had been a vacant seat. -College-aged passenger onboard Aloha Flight 243 

    Aloha Flight 243 provided a significant example of this need, as this excerpt from an interview shows. Within the first week after I mailed the consent forms to passenger survivors, I received a call from a young man who survived Aloha Flight 243 without physical injury – but was under a doctor’s care over two years after the accident when I interviewed him. He explained that he had received my letter requesting participation in my study, but his psychiatrist had advised him against interviewing with me. He had obtained permission, however, to contact me and explain why he could not participate. 

    I quickly explained that I always support recommendations made by survivors’ medical advisors regarding participation in my interviews. Once assured that I would not press with specific questions of a clinical nature, the young man told me about his experience and why he sought psychiatric support following the accident. Following are the highlights of his account. 

    After takeoff, I suddenly heard a “whooshing” noise, and the cabin filled with a dense fog. It was impossible to see clearly. As the fog dissipated, I saw blue skies above me and was horrified to see that the aircraft wall once beside me had disappeared. To my greater surprise, a man in a business suit was now sitting beside me in what had been a vacant seat. Without introduction, the stranger leaned over the armrest and assured me I would be okay. He told me to relax, as the pilots would safely land the plane, and I would be fine. 

    At that point, a sense of calm swept over me – that made no sense. The aircraft, missing its ceiling and an entire section of cabin walls, was pointed straight down, descending rapidly toward the ocean. During this entire time, with my logical mind telling me we were crashing, the man’s presence gave me a “knowing” that I would survive. 

    As the skilled pilots guided the aircraft to a safe stop after the landing, I realized that the man had disappeared. I did not see him leave more than I saw him strap into the seat beside me. He disappeared as quietly as he appeared. 

    Like all of my fellow passengers, as the flight attendants shouted orders to evacuate the aircraft, I unbuckled my seatbelt and ran to the nearest door and jumped into the escape slide. Following the others, I ran quickly away from harm’s way. I was one of the lucky ones who sustained no physical injuries. The paramedic who examined me allowed me to leave the terminal building—while others were taken away to the local hospital. 

    Once on the ground, the aircraft was in full view. Passengers who had been seated behind the damaged fuselage could now see what had happened. Until they evacuated, many had no idea what had happened to the airplane, much less the level of destruction, until they could see the aircraft as they looked back over their shoulders as they ran from the badly broken aircraft. 

    My parents saw the airplane land and were shocked when they saw me approaching them as though all was normal. On our ride home, when I shared the story about the man who sat beside me during the crisis but disappeared before landing, my father insisted that I speak with a mental health professional. I did not disagree.

More than a Study of the Psychological Effects of Trauma

“Joe, you really don’t have faith, do you? No Father, I have experience.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

    As the quote describing the conversation between American philosopher and writer Joseph Cambell and a priest illustrates, our definition of faith and beliefs are influenced by life experiences. When survivors go through life events like the young college-aged man described in the Aloha accident, their worldview is changed forever.  While everyone likes validation, unusual experiences that many survivors have cannot be denied – and best practice asks that helpers listen and support the person telling their story, regardless of one’s own personal beliefs.

    Examples like the one involving this survivor are used in HSR™ Training to help responders realize the need to listen and validate survivor experiences, regardless of their religious or personal beliefs.

    I used to be a skeptic because I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t trained to look through any other lens. But over time, I learned to open my mind to other kinds of communication and possibilities.

-Bernie Siegel, M.D. The Art of Healing

    Dr. Siegel’s work with cancer patients and survivors grew from the traditional medical model to a practice that embraces a spiritual component, where all patient experiences are credible, believable and worthy of validation. Care and Special Assistance Team Members will undoubtedly hear survivor stories like the one described in this article and, like Dr. Siegel and other professional helpers, will recognize the need to honor their experiences.

 © 2024 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.