By Paul Sledzik
Tragedy stresses the bonds of love with unimaginable force. Each of us faces the death of a loved one with an individual response, making generalizations difficult. In our work in Transportation Disaster Assistance, we’ve seen the entire range of response, from anger to incredible grace and understanding.
Some families use their grief as the catalyst to ensure others don’t suffer a similar loss. We see this often in the aftermath of transportation accidents. Not wanting the loss to be in vain, and to honor their loved one, they advocate for improved transportation safety. Some do it alone, while others form associations with others who lost family in the same accident. Sometimes, families join together to focus on a specific transportation safety issue that goes beyond the accident to prevent future losses. More often than not, they look to the NTSB recommendations as a source of independent information to focus their advocacy efforts.
The family members who lost loved ones in the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 in 2009 are a remarkable example. Their efforts for substantial improvements in aviation safety resulted in the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. This week marks the 6th anniversary of that accident, and the families were on Capitol Hill last week to continue their advocacy during the FAA reauthorization hearings.
Many of us are aware of the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which grew from a mother who lost her daughter to a national movement. Similar grass-roots groups or individual families promote safety in wide range of transportation modes including fishing vessels, cruise ships, motorcoaches and school buses, trucks, and highway and auto operations. The Survivors Network for Air & Surface Medical Transport, created by survivors of air medical accidents, supports survivors and family members of air and surface medical accidents and works with operators to mitigate risk and improve safety.
Family members have sometimes taken on advocacy to improve the treatment of other families who have endured losses in accidents. The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, which began with a grass-roots effort by family members impacted by major aviation accidents in the mid 1990s, has had a profound effect on improving the services and information families are provided following major aviation accidents in the US. Similar rail passenger legislation was passed in 2008.
The implementation of family assistance continues around the world. Last year, with the urging of aviation accident family member organizations from around the world, the International Civil Aviation Organization passed a policy document promoting the humanitarian support that countries and operators should undertake to effectively support family members and survivors after aviation accidents. Nations including Japan, Brazil, China, South Korea, and Australia, and the countries of the European Union have crafted aviation family assistance legislation that ensures appropriate support for families and survivors. Family members who suffered through poorly coordinated accident responses in the past have worked to pay their efforts forward to other families they will never know—the ultimate act of compassion.
Transportation systems move people so that they can conduct business, enjoy a holiday, or spend time with loved ones. When an accident happens, the impact is often measured by the human element. The resulting individual suffering, although sometimes played out publically, is very private. Family members who bravely step out of their private suffering to honor their loved ones are truly acting out of love for all of us.
Paul Sledzik is the Chief of the Transportation Disaster Assistance Division