Following is the latest Wednesday Wisdom article from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.
Lightning Doesn’t Strike the Same Place Twice: Another Myth Dispelled
I had broken my neck in a serious accident ten years prior. And now it had happened again? Don’t bad things come in threes? I guess that means I’m bound to break my neck a third time.
-Kristy Sheridan, Third Time Down (in press)
Survivor Kristy Sheridan has written a detailed account of her life, including her survival of American Airlines Flight #1420, June 1, 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, and recovery from a sixty-foot fall while on holiday in Germany. Her book entitled Third Time Down weaves together the two accidents and provides insight into how her life experience led to founding a ministry whose purpose is to serve others who suffer. It will be my privilege to announce when the book is released and provide details about how Kristy’s book and ministry will be available to readers. And, as the title suggests, lightning does indeed strike the same “person” more than once—in my research with survivors, I have seen more than one survivor struck by disaster—more than once.
Kristy recently joined the Foundation’s Care Team. As part of her introduction to our team members, Kristy allowed me to preview her book which is due out in 2021. She also answered questions about her experiences as a survivor of the American Airlines accident. While her upcoming book provides extensive details about long-term recovery from both events, this article will focus on details related to the response by the American CARE Team and other experiences related to that tragedy.
1. CVC: How did you see the accident in terms of your faith or spirituality?
KS: Always a person of faith, Kristy prayed for others who were trapped in the aircraft, unable to free themselves from the fire, as she awaited rescue. In the days after the crash, she thanked God over and over for sparing her life, and prayed for the injured and the families of those who died.
Kristy’s book is a testimony to her faith and provides a great deal more information about how faith in God has sustained her throughout her life.
2A. CVC: Where did you receive the most emotional support, initially?
KS: Other survivors: The support of other passengers began immediately after impact. Kristy was trapped in the burning plane and a fellow passenger risked his own life to dig her out of thewreckage and carry her to safety. While she waited for medical attention, other survivors helped keep her warm and assisted rescue workers. Her survivor friends also visited Kristy in the hospital, and talking to them about the incident provided great relief. Visiting the wreckage along with them was powerful and critically important to helping Kristy process what happened. She and her family felt that the visit to the crash site was well thought-out, including the provision of comfortable busses, helpful guides, and Red Cross volunteers.
Husband and parents: After Kristy was taken to the hospital, her husband made his own way to Little Rock and remained by her side until she was released. Initially he slept on chairs by her bedside, determined to protect her from any further harm. As soon as flights could be arranged, American Airlines brought Kristy’s parents to Little Rock and provided hotel accommodations for them.
Care team: Kristy’s care team brought her clothing and offered what help they could.
2B. CVC: How about later?
KS: Over the months following the accident, Kristy found comfort by communicating with other passengers. The bond that began during the crash with some survivors continues to this day. Kristy actually learned of the Foundation from Jeff Arnold who heads up the Foundation’s response activities in Alaska, where he resides.
3. CVC: What actions did you take to regain control over your life?
KS:Journaling: From the beginning, Kristy recorded her feelings and experiences about the crash on her computer. Being able to express her emotions privately, unedited, provided relief and allowed her to track her progress over time. Her journal proved to be invaluable for the book, about to be released to the public.
Seeking a Counselor: Kristy received help from a counselor over a two-year time period. Initially she saw her counselor twice a week for two-hour sessions. Later, the sessions became two-hour appointments, once a week, and eventually she was able to cope with her stress with one session weekly for one hour’s time. While talk-therapy and medications helped her cope, Kristy felt that her healing was accelerated when she began a new form of treatment—Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). While not well known at the time in the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), EMDR, today is a very popular psychotherapy used by professionals in treatment of victims from all types of trauma. It does not involve talk therapy or medications. The treatment involves the patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements under the direction of the therapist.
While in the EMDR treatments, Kristy was able to see that survivor’s guilt was a large part of her distress from the accident. Once she was able to process this part of her experience, she felt released from much of what had prevented her healing.
Taking legal action: Kristy also sought the assistance of a Dallas-based plaintiff’s attorney, John Howie who represented many survivors of the same accident. Kristy was unable to continue her career and therefore contribute to the family’s income. Finding the right attorney to represent her in the settlement process was a major step in that direction. Kristy’s case was eventually settled in mediation.
4. CVC: Did you have to forgive anyone?
KS: Kristy never felt the need to forgive the pilot. Although he made a mistake which resulted in the crash, she felt that he had paid for the mistake with his life. Kristy did not feel that she needed to forgive the airline either. After the crash, she appreciated that CARE Team members were assigned to help her and her family. She appreciated that they brought her parents to Little Rock and provided logistical support for them and her husband.
Aside from the emotional and psychological trauma which Kristy endured, the next major source of enormous distress involved dealing with the law suit and in particular, the woman who represented the airline’s interest against the survivors. When Kristy entered the legal process, she had no idea about the loss of privacy she would experience. Details of her personal life were exposed, which to her seemed irrelevant to the crash. She described the airline representative as having ice water running through her veins.
Over time as Kristy began to heal on a spiritual level, she was able to forgive the female airline representative and all suffering associated with the law suit. The memories of the distress involved in the lawsuit remain, despite her ability to forgive individuals. This is a common theme for survivors that we see when the legal process begins for survivors of workplace trauma.
5. CVC: What did you create from the trauma?
KS: In her efforts to gain control of her distress after the accident, Kristy created a new life. After the second fall where she was injured, Kristy began a ministry to help others who are suffering from trauma and loss. This ministry is currently in development.
6. CVC: Trauma Integration: What did you leave behind and what do you carry with you?
KS: Just prior to the airline accident Kristy had learned to scuba dive. She had made her first dive with her father and husband and completed a life-long goal when she became certified. After the crash, Kristy could no longer dive. This was one of the many activities that Kristy was forced to forego in her new life, post-crash.
Kristy learned to let go of the identity that was hers before the airline accident. Over time, she was able to integrate what she had learned from all of her life experience in order to provide service to others today.
7. CVC: How do you commune (prayer, meditation? ritual?) with those whom you love who are no longer on earth?
KS: Kristy has not lost anyone in her personal life that would cause her to look for ways to remain connected once they have passed away. However, because of her deep faith and prayer ritual, she is certain that when that day comes, she will be able to maintain the sense of connection with her loved ones on a spiritual level.
A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
Many parts of the interview with Kristy validated the role of leadership in the planning and preparing for the unexpected like the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420. Interviews show that many actions must be accomplished quickly in order to help stabilize the environment survivors find themselves in during the dependency phase of trauma.
Kristy’s interview also reminds us of how far we have advanced in communicating honestly and quickly with families of passengers. The “head” side of a response is essential to making sure that coordination among airports, reservations systems and all areas where miscommunications may occur are connected to prevent what happened to Kristy’s husband.
My husband was beyond frustrated when he was given misinformation or inadequate information in the first hours of the crash.
Kristy’s husband, Brad, phoned American Airlines soon after Flight 1420 was supposed to land. He was told the flight was due to land at a specific time, although it was already past that time. Brad was told that a company other than American Airlines was responsible for the slow computer updates. The representative speculated that perhaps the flight had landed at a different airport because of the storm. Brad next called a pilot friend, who looked into the matter on his own and learned the plane had crashed. Brad immediately departed in his car for Little Rock, and was not notified about the crash by American Airlines until he was well on his way. He felt deceived and angry.
I appreciated the fact that American brought my parents to Little Rock and coordinated their logistical needs while I was in the hospital.
Once physical safety is assured by the first responders and medical personnel, reconnection for survivors with their family members is at the top of the care team responder’s check list. Kristy’s story also reminds us how important survivors are to each other when they have shared a trauma like the American crash. American Airlines also assisted in bringing the survivors together for a memorial service a few weeks after the crash which facilitated additional long-term support among the survivors.
I appreciated the check for $20,000.00 the CARE Team gave us the day after the accident.
Kristy was grateful for the $20,000.00 check which allowed her to cover short-term needs. This immediate aid which all survivors received helped offset expenses that were incurred during the initial phase of the trauma. In 1997, a European Union regulation came out that required air carriers to advance money to the family of any passenger who died in an air disaster. By the time AA 1420 occurred where Kristy and 133 others survived (there were also 11 fatalities) it had become common practice for the air carriers to provide passenger survivors $20,000.00 (US currency) for immediate aid. Planning and efforts to ensure that the checks are delivered quickly to each recipient, is also high on the checklist of those who are planning the logistical side of the Care Team’s response.
I could not understand why my personal life became public as part of the law suit.
The discussion with Kristy about the legal process reminded me of other comments by survivors in similar situations. As much as the Care Team responders would like to influence this part of a survivor’s experience, once they stand down from their assignment, and this process begins, they are not able to communicate, much less assist with anything else. The legal process is a major focus of research studies being planned to improve international humanitarian assistance in workplace trauma.
Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It's important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It's the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.
- Dorothy Height (1912-2010) American Civil and Women’s Rights Activist
Survivor Kristy Sheridan’s story is destined to resonate with all who have experienced trauma and made the decision to convert their suffering into service. At the Foundation, we look forward to working with Kristy as a Care Team member, and to helping share more of her story when her upcoming book, Third Time Down is released in 2021.
 CARE used in this context refers to the acronym which American Airlines named their family assistance team. Other airlines and organizations use the term “Care” in a more descriptive manner, thus the lowercase in other references.
 John Robert Howie (1946-2002). John Howie received numerous awards for his excellence at the practice of law, particularly in aviation law. Little is known about the role John played in the way that aviation and other survivors of workplace trauma are responded to in the aftermath. In the late eighties when I began my research, the consensus at the university and among disaster psychologists in general was that due to legal issues, research on survivors of commercial airline crashes could not be conducted. More than one psychological researcher had tried and failed due to push back from plaintiff attorneys who feared the research would interfere with the settlement process. When John learned that I was attempting the research that forms the basis of Human Services Response™ training, he contacted me and committed to helping me succeed by speaking to plaintiffs and other major aviation attorneys. With his support I was able to obtain the required number of survivors required by my dissertation committee to complete the research and publish The Psychological Aftermath of Air Disaster: What Can be Learned for Training? 1992, sponsored by the Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While as with all science conducted on human subjects, I was legally bound to find my own subjects, but having their attorney’s approval for the survivor to be interviewed, encouraged many to participate in the study. Without John, there is no way of knowing how many more years the research would have been delayed or prevented, as the legal process as survivors will attest is a formidable opponent to healing in innumerable ways.