EFFECTS OF INVESTIGATION OF A FATAL AIR CRASH ON 13 GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATORS
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMS-9632458. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule/Disaster Supplement (DIS/D/S), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation investigators (FAA) were interviewed 6-9 months post-accident over the phone, while the investigation was still in progress. Results of the interviews showed that 3 (23%) of the investigators reported symptoms which the computer-scored DIS diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Onset and recency dates of the symptoms revealed that only one of the investigator's symptoms could be related to the accident under study, but both of the other subjects described former air crashes as the event associated with their symptoms of posttraumatic stress. In addition, one investigator was diagnosed with major depression and one qualified for a diagnosis of phobia. Both of these investigators indicated onset dates of symptoms that corresponded with the date of the Charlotte accident. In addition, the mean number of symptoms of PTSD was 4.2, major depression 2.5, phobia .5 , generalized anxiety .6, somatization 1.0. None of the investigators reported physical health symptoms that could be associated with the Charlotte accident. A correlational matrix involving age, number of accidents investigated, number of years with the agency, exposure to sights and smells of the accident scene and other variables did not show any statistically significant relationships between these variables and development of physical or mental disorder or symptoms of disorders. Two more rounds of data will be collected by the second anniversary of the Charlotte airline accident to determine if these findings change over time and with additional accident investigations performed by these investigators.
Another group of personnel who are always on the scene of fatal accident investigations are the aviation safety investigators (ASIs) who are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Although ideally bodies of victims are removed before the ASIs are on the scene, this is not always the case. Severe fire and impact conditions and circumstances of the accident may make it impossible to remove all of the victims before the ASIs begin their investigation. It is also likely that severe impact may spread debris from an accident including body parts for miles, and therefore it is not uncommon for an ASI to discover human body parts as they sift through the wreckage of a fuselage in their pursuit of discovering probable cause of the accident. Also, the ASIs routinely interview persons who survive the accident and others who are related to the often deceased flight crew in trying to understand all factors that may contribute to the cause of the accident, thereby becoming exposed to the grief of surviving family members.
Finally, many of the ASIs repeteadly listen to voices of the pilots on the voice recorder, which often includes the last minute conversations of distressed pilots with each other and air traffic control personnel. In these last minutes before a crash, it is not unusual to hear screams and panic-stricken voices and occasionally outcries as the pilots face terror and often their own deaths. All of these factors may add to the potential for ASIs experiencing the effects of secondary traumatic stress.
In August of 1993, a survey study was conducted on a random sample of 109 FAA ASIs in an effort to determine the potential for distress involving fatal accident investigations (Coarsey-Rader & Rockwood 1993). The results in this study showed that over 50% of the investigators consistently ranked items associated with fatal accident investigations as being above average in producing distress. Among the highest ranked items were "investigating an accident where children have been killed," "investigating an accident where bodies or body parts are uncovered," "interviewing surviving crew members where other members of the crew died in the same accident." This small sample was fraught with problems in terms of generalizability, most specifically the investigators had great variability in experience, i.e., one investigator had investigated over 100 investigations while one had investigated only one accident and not all the accidents under examination were fatal.
In spite of the problems with this study of investigators, the results did indicate that there are some factors associated with fatal accident investigations that may cause distress in investigators. This is one of the first studies of the effects of investigative duties where all of the investigators were involved in determining probable cause of the same fatal accident.
Although programs have been developed for helping rescue workers and public safety employees with distress associated with disaster, there currently exists no specific programs for intervention and prevention of distress which the ASIs may experience. Prior to attempting to develop such programs, it is important to determine the effects of secondary trauma on ASIs and which, if any, factors of these investigations produce higher levels of distress.
One investigator was diagnosed with major depression and one qualified for a diagnosis of phobia. Both of these investigators indicated onset dates of symptoms that corresponded with the date of the Charlotte accident.
One investigator reported that the investigation had caused a "great deal of harm" on a personal level, yet this persons felt s(he) had recovered at the time of the interview. The others indicated that it had caused them "little" if any harm. Over 50% of the ASIs indicated that they returned to a normal routine in less than a week, while others reported that their routine had not been interrupted. Over 90% of the ASIs involved in the Charlotte accident investigation reported that they experienced no problems at work or home as a result of the work assignment. Almost all reported that the investigation had not caused problems in relationships.
All but one of the ASIs indicated that they were not "afraid of dying" due to any reason while on scene, while one person indicated fear of death on scene. When asked if the subjects had witnessed anything "disgusting" to look at on the site, 69% of the ASIs answered "yes."
ASIs were asked whether or not the accident investigation was upsetting to them. Only one reported that it was "very upsetting," 50% of the others found it "somewhat," and the others reported that it was "not" upsetting. When asked "what effect the investigation had on their lives," only one reported that "it had hurt." Nearly 70% reported that there was "no change," with a few reporting that their lives had been improved by the accident investigation.
To learn more about coping, ASI's were asked questions as to their perception of availability of social support throughout their lives. Seventy-seven percent answered "yes" to the following three questions: "Was there always someone you would ask advice if you had an important decision to make?"; "Has there always been someone you could tell if you made a serious mistake that could get you into trouble?"; and "Has there always been someone you could go to for comfort?" When asked "Has there always been someone on your side if you had a disagreement or fight?" 69% said "yes."
Despite the limited findings of this small sample, this study supports the findings of the pilot study of ASIs and secondary stress (Coarsey-Rader & Rockwood, 1993) by clearly showing that the work of investigators exposed to fatal air crashes does have an impact on their psychological health. Future findings of this study and and others of this population will no doubt shed light on what specific duties and other factors predict and/or prevent distress experienced by ASIs involved in investigations of fatal air crashes.
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