Sunday, January 19, 1997
In crisis, Comair stayed
on course

Company continually updated
crash plan and knew what to do, experts say

BY GUY BOULTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

David Siebenburgen, the president of Comair Inc.'s parent company, was meeting with two people in his office when Michael Stuart walked in.

''It happened,'' said Mr. Stuart, senior vice president of aircraft operations. ''We lost one off of radar in Detroit.''

Flight 3272, carrying 29 people from Cincinnati, had disappeared from air traffic control's radar as the aircraft prepared to land.

Mr. Siebenburgen's first thought was that his greatest nightmare - ''the thing we had trained for and always dreaded'' - had happened.

He sent everyone to Mr. Stuart's office next door. They waited a minute or so, knowing that dispatch, which had taken the call from Comair's office in Detroit, would make several other calls. Then they called dispatch back.

''What else do we know?'' Mr. Siebenburgen asked.

There was a local 911 report of a small aircraft down, and Comair's Detroit office had lost radio contact with the aircraft.

Mr. Siebenburgen immediately decided to activate the crisis center on the first floor of Comair's headquarters.

As they left Mr. Stuart's office, they saw Meghan Glynn, manager of media relations, charging down the hall.

''CNN wants a statement,'' she said.

The executives ran to the crisis center. Mr. Siebenburgen got there first. Two phones were ringing as he flipped on the lights.

He grabbed one of the phones. It was a police officer at the site of the crash. Mr. Siebenburgen asked for the plane's tail number.

It was a Comair plane.

''We all knew what to do,'' Mr. Siebenburgen said.

Within minutes of Flight 3272's crashing into a field south of Detroit, Comair set into motion a plan that the company had hoped it would never use.

The so-called emergency response plan assigned employees to the hundreds and even the thousands of tasks that would need to be done within the coming hours, the coming days and the coming weeks.

Within the first two hours, the company set up a toll-free line for the passengers' families and friends. It sent its ''go team'' of about 30 employees to Detroit. It began checking the aircraft's maintenance records. It had a news conference and sent out a news release. It began putting together a passenger list.

And a group of employees - volunteers trained for the painful assignment - began contacting the families of the 29 people killed in the crash.

Every airline has an emergency-response plan, and, in recent years, those plans have become more detailed and elaborate.

Comair had been updating its emergency response plan in the past two years. That effort intensified last year after the ValuJet and TWA disasters.

''They saw what happened to some airlines that weren't quite prepared,'' said Dave Shipley, a former vice president of USAir Group Inc., who helped update the communications portion of Comair's emergency-response plan last year.

Comair had trained employees as recently as last fall and had gone through a practice drill in December.

The emergency-response plan assigned about 100 employees to teams that set up telephones and faxes at command centers, that booked flights for family members, that were stationed at the morgue, that worked with federal investigators and that assisted family members.

In the coming days, those employees handled assignments that might have ranged from buying warm clothing or a toothbrush for a family member to arranging for a local police officer to pick up and deliver dental records to an airport.

The employees had checklists, starting with the notification of dispatch, on what needed to be done. The checklists were first broken into 30-minute increments, then into 60-minute increments and progressed from there.

Those checklists, though, were just a starting point.

''Every situation, believe me, is different,'' said Ralph Cox, a consultant hired by Comair early last summer to help update its emergency-response plan and to train employees.

''The people make these situations work,'' Mr. Cox said. ''You have to be able to react intelligently and quickly.''

Comair's preparation apparently paid off.

Matthew Furman, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board who was at the crash site, praised Comair's reaction.

''They were efficient,'' he said. ''They were responsive.''

Within two hours, Comair's ''go team'' was on its way to Detroit. Its job was to set up a command center at the Royce Hotel in Romulus, to send people to the crash site, to contact local NTSB officials - ''to get the process rolling,'' said Mr. Cox, who was called within 30 minutes of the crash.

The team took with it preassembled kits containing everything from foul-weather gear to cash to pencils.

''Anything you need to set up a command center,'' Mr. Cox said. ''You don't have time to go to Office Depot.''

Flurry of activity

When Mr. Cox, who lives in Melbourne, Fla., arrived at the Detroit command center at 8:30 that night, about a dozen Comair employees were distributing identification cards, arranging for security, setting up lines for phones and faxes, checking on the status of the various teams, reserving hotel rooms, arranging for rental cars and handling dozens of other tasks.

The employees at the command center worked until 3 a.m. that night; they started again at 5 a.m.

At Comair's headquarters in Erlanger, employees were contacting the victims' families. Others were making travel arrangements for the victims' families. Still others were gathering information and preparing news releases.

The emergency-response plan, for instance, contained prewritten ''shell'' news releases to provide a framework for the company's first statements on the crash.

People want information

''The first thing people are going to want is information,'' said Mr. Shipley, the former vice president of USAir, who has been involved in responding to nine airplane crashes in his 30-year career.

Comair conducted its first news conference at 6:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. It had a second news conference shortly after 10 p.m.

By then, the company had contacted the families of 23 of the 29 people on the aircraft. The remaining six families were contacted by about midnight.

''Comair did a demonstrably better job than others in handling the situation,'' said Robert Moorman, regional airline editor of Air Transport World.

By Friday, the victims' families began arriving at Monroe, Mich., a city near the crash site where Comair had reserved a block of rooms at a Holiday Inn.

The families of the crew members stayed at a different hotel.

Bruce Blythe, president of Crisis Management International Inc. (CMI) in Atlanta, said Comair has been one of the most active airlines in training employees in how to counsel family members following a disaster.

CMI's clients include Delta, which owns about 20 percent of Comair Holdings Inc., the regional airline's parent.

That kind of training is essential.

''The greatest challenge is to care compassionately for the next of kin,'' said Agnes Huff, a clinical psychologist who has written crisis plans for airlines and other industries.

Comair had contracted with Family Enterprises Inc. (FEI), a behavioral-health company based in Milwaukee, to provide therapists for the victims' families and the company's employees following an air disaster.

Family Enterprises, for instance, had trained the Comair employees who contacted the victims' families. That training consisted of lectures, role playing and reading materials.

Joseph DesPlaines, Family Enterprises' president and chief executive, and two other employees were at Comair's headquarters on unrelated business the day of the crash.

What was to be a one-day business trip would last more than a week.

Family Enterprises sent about 30 different therapists trained in trauma - most of them under contract with the company - to Monroe, Detroit, Cincinnati and Orlando.

The first therapists arrived in Detroit within two hours.

Federal law now requires that assisting the victims' families be part of an airline's emergency-response plan.

But Mr. Furman of the NTSB said Comair's ''care for the families went above and beyond what any government legislation would require.''

In Monroe, Family Enterprises' therapists and Comair employees were to help the families in any way possible - from arranging meals to providing counseling.

''Among the families I talked to, they by and large were welcomed and appreciated,'' Mr. Furman said.

For the family members who did not want to travel to the site of the crash, Comair offered to send a therapist and a Comair employee to their home, said Ms. Glynn, the Comair spokeswoman.

Seeking closure

Most of the victims' families, however, accepted the company's offer to be flown to the site of the crash.

''They have to see the site,'' said Mr. Shipley, the retired USAir executive. ''They have to see what has happened to that loved one or friend.''

A memorial service was conducted Sunday at an area church. Afterward, the families were taken to the site. They were allowed within 30 to 40 yards and could see the remaining wreckage.

''They could see where it all happened,'' said Mr. Furman, the NTSB spokesman. ''Airplane accidents are not easy things to imagine.''

People familiar with air disasters said that visiting the site provides a sense of closure - or at least the beginnings of it - for family members. That apparently held true for the families of the people on board Flight 3272.

''I was with many of them back at the hotel,'' Mr. Furman said, ''and there was a palpable sense of relief.''

At the same time that Comair was helping the victims' families, it was working with federal investigators to determine the cause of the crash.

Employees typically are assigned to teams that look at the engines, air frame, avionics and electrical systems as well as the weather and the operations of air-traffic control, according to a former accident investigator who could not be identified because of his current employer. Others are assigned to teams that examine the tapes from the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

Four other employees - again volunteers - were assigned to the morgue.

''Having been to the morgue, that is the most gruesome task,'' Mr. Furman said.

The Comair employees were the company's liaison with the local coroner and with the federal Disaster Mortuary Service. At one point, 125 people - funeral directors, dentists, pathologists, finger-print experts - were working at the morgue.

Mr. Cox, who has been assigned to morgues five times in his more than 30 years in the airline industry, trained the Comair employees assigned to the morgue.

Comair employees also arranged for the return and transportation of the victims' remains.

Throughout all this, Comair employees were grappling with their own emotions. Some were in the midst of the most difficult assignments of their careers. Others knew members of the crew. And probably all of them felt a personal connection to the tragedy.

''I don't care what you do - if you work for that airline, you have some sense of grief for the families and some sense of responsibility,'' said Carolyn Coarsey-Rader, a researcher affiliated with the University of Washington who has helped train airline employees on how to respond to an air disaster.

At the peak, Family Enterprises had eight therapists at Comair's headquarters.

The therapists were there to help Comair employees - many of them emotionally and physically exhausted - put the experience in perspective, said Mr. DesPlaines, Family Enterprises' president. The goal was to help prepare employees to deal with their own reactions and the reactions of others.

Throughout the crisis, the more than 3,000 people who work for Comair would need to keep the airline running. Hundreds volunteered to work extra shifts.

Comair's emergency response plan assigned few specific tasks for Mr. Siebenburgen, the president of Comair Holdings Inc. Other employees were assisting the families or working with federal investigators. And from talking to consultants, Mr. Siebenburgen knew that one of his most important roles would be to focus on the company's employees.

When he left Comair's headquarters at 2:30 a.m. Friday morning, he walked through the maintenance facility to talk to employees before going home.

He was back at the crisis center at 5:30 a.m. He spent a good part of Friday visiting employees at the airport and went to Orlando, where Comair has another hub, Saturday.

Sunday, Mr. Siebenburgen went to Michigan, where he visited the command center, the morgue and the hotel where the victims' families were staying. He did not want to force himself on the families but instead talked to Comair employees who were assisting them.

Every airline has an emergency-response plan. The key is putting the plan into action. Comair employees apparently did that with speed and sensitivity.

Talking briefly last week about the disaster, Mr. Siebenburgen said he was struck by the outpouring of concern and grief among Comair's employees.

''This was not a distant company event,'' Mr. Siebenburgen said. ''This was a tragedy to them personally. And they reacted as if it was a personal event.''

Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.

HUNDREDS MOURN LOCAL VICTIMS
FAMILIES HELP EACH OTHER
PROFILES OF VICTIMS
TEN DAYS OF CRASH COVERAGE

Victims

CREW
Captain
Dann Carlsen
Grant County, Ky.

First Officer
Kenneth Reece
Fort Wright, Ky.

Flight Attendant
Darinda Ogden Nilsen
Lexington, Ky.

PASSENGERS
Adams, Dexter
Cincinnati

Barrow, Gregory
Detroit

Bransford, Roger
Sandy Springs, Ga.

Brice, Arthur
Brookhaven, Miss.

Brownlee, Christine
Helena, Mont.

Brownlee, Scott
Helena, Mont.

Davis, Geoffrey
Detroit.

DeMarco, Maureen
Englewood, Colo.

Douchard, Greg
Wesson, Miss.

Felteau, Leo
Atlanta

Herman, Mark
Novi, Mich.

Jones, Betty Jean
Detroit

Jones, Charles
McComb, Miss.

McClain, Steven
Waterford, Mich.

Muskovitz, Teri
West Bloomfield, Mich.

Passariello, Kim
Lake Havasu, Ariz.

Raymond, Roy
Twin Falls, Id.

Raymond, Vernamarie
Twin Falls, Id.

Rosiak, Jennifer
Fairbanks, Alaska

Rosiak, Nicholas
Fairbanks, Alaska

Sharangpani, Arati
Holland, Mich.

Stearn, Richard
Whitmore Lake, Mich.

Takenami, Keita
Lexington, Ky.

Thomas, Douglas
Detroit.

Wansedel, Charles
Mount Clemens, Mich.

Zagar, Darlene
Danville, Ky.


Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Contact Greg Noble, online editor.
Entire contents Copyright (c) 1996 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.