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Behavior: Crash Trauma

3 minute read

Nightmares plague rescuers

For police and firemen who rushed to the scene of San Diego’s disastrous air crash last September, the tragedy is not yet over. Months after a Pacific Southwest airliner collided with a small plane and plunged into a downtown neighborhood, claiming 144 lives, many of the emergency workers who confronted the human carnage were still trying to shake off the trauma. A few were paralyzed with anxiety whenever they tried to put on the uniform they wore on the day of the accident. Others suffered from hellish nightmares, insomnia, stomach ailments, migraines and partial amnesia about the terrible event. Says Alan Davidson, president of the Academy of San Diego Psychologists: “This has had an impact on the human psyche beyond what we can humanly know.”

Davidson thinks that extensive dismemberment among the victims made the San Diego crash even more horrifying than most major accidents. Parts of bodies were strewn over lawns, houses and roads, and police said they could not walk down the street without stepping on human tissue. Emergency personnel were overwhelmed. They spent their first minutes in a semi-daze, trying to cover up the bloodiest scenes. Police who arrested people—for taking airplane parts or for not leaving the scene of a disaster—coped better. For such officers, says Psychologist Steven Padgitt, “there was some sense of purpose, some sense of being able to express the rage they were experiencing.”

Twenty-five local psychologists provided free counseling to city workers and witnesses to the crash. About 100 sought treatment, most of them veteran police officers haunted by their inability to control the chaos and hysteria at the scene of the carnage. The first 16 policemen who came for help all used the word “macho” and talked of themselves as possible failures for seeking therapy. Most urged that the psychologist look at video tapes and photographs of the site, partly to share their sickening feeling, partly to convince the therapist of their manliness. Says Davidson: “They didn’t want it to appear that they’d been overcome by some small thing.”

To unleash that suppressed rage, the psychologists prescribed jogging, target shooting or other sports. Explains Davidson: “We wanted the anger to come out in an appropriate, directed way rather than when they are arresting somebody.” Standard behavioral modification techniques were used for sleeplessness and physical symptoms, and some psychologists tried hypnosis to deal with amnesia about the disaster. The most successful treatment, however, was simply empathy. Says Davidson: “They seemed to need to hear initially that they are normal, adjusted individuals who were put into a completely abnormal situation.” Adds Gentry Harris, a San Francisco psychiatrist who has worked extensively with disaster witnesses: “It’s important to let the person know he’s not some kind of screwball. He’s still within the human family. We just need to make people recognize that they do have limitations.”

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