By Debbie Hersman
On October 18, the aviation community lost a giant among men: Hans Ephraimson-Abt. In his New York Times obituary, the headline described him as an “Air-Crash Victims’ Crusader.” I couldn’t help but think how aptly the term “crusader” fit him, for he applied every means at his disposal to advance victims’ issues for decades.
There is no doubt that the positive changes we have seen in the way air crash victims and their families are treated in the aftermath of a transportation tragedy is due in no small part to Hans’ efforts over the last 30 years. For those of us in this line of work, we know all too well Hans’ personal story of the tragedy of his daughter, Alice, and the ill-fated flight of Korean Air Lines flight 007. But perhaps what is more remarkable is that in all the years that I worked with Hans, I never sensed any bitterness or resentment in him.
Through the decades, as he faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get a law passed, or an international treaty signed, he never took “no” for an answer. He knew he could not win every battle, but he never gave up the fight. As a crusader, he was fierce and dogged in his determination. But he was always the diplomat and the gentleman. A few weeks before his passing, when we were together at the 38th General Assembly of ICAO in Montreal, there he was, engaging another delegate or ambassador to support the ratification of the Montreal Convention or the new ICAO policy on family assistance in air disasters.
This past spring, Hans invited me to attend a small private reception at the home of the consul general for the German mission in New York. With his children, grandchildren and a few dear friends in attendance, he received the Order of Merit, one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the Republic of Germany. To me, it was a climactic moment in Hans’ life. Here was a man whose family had fled his native Germany on the eve of World War II, spending time in work camps, not knowing where his parents and family members were. Years later, he emigrated to a new life in New York, where he was reunited with his parents.
Yes, Hans was a crusader but he was also a survivor. And because he knew firsthand about the mistreatment of others, he made it a point to rise above it. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He demonstrated through his life’s work that you can always be kind and courteous even when you disagree. Hans didn’t take to compliments easily. He would demur if you wanted to heap praise on him. But as I stood and witnessed that event in New York, I could see how deeply he was touched by the honor bestowed on him, for his selfless contributions, and this one time, he accepted the recognition he so deserved.
When I saw him at the ICAO meetings in Montreal, on his lapel, he wore the ribbon that accompanied his medal. As always, he was gracious and kind in our meetings. As always, he urged us to continue the crusade. With his passing, a new leadership will take up the cause that he began 30 years ago. And like Hans, we can’t win every battle. But if we remain true to our cause and to ourselves, then one day, perhaps we can fully realize Hans’ crusade for compassionate treatment of all survivors and victims’ families in the aftermath of aviation tragedies.