Difficult Emotions

ISSN 2369-873X

3 March 2014
Posted by: Ewan Tasker

It’s the middle of summer, and I’m on standby this weekend. The weekend has been pretty quiet so far with only a couple of calls for minor incidents. I’m at home with my family watching my daughter use the high powered nozzle on the hose to ‘water’ my prized herb garden.

Then the phone rings. There has been an accident. A single engine plane has crashed in a forested area. The police are on scene and it appears that there is just one person on board but that individual has received fatal injuries. I start making arrangements to deploy. My wife understands that I have to go, but my 5 year old girl, not so much.

I get more details enroute regarding the aircraft type, route, weather, and pilot. I’ve flown that type of aircraft before, in similar weather conditions, and near that area. I wonder what went wrong. I see a picture of the pilot. He looks a little like my dad who passed away last year.

When I get on scene the police, fire department, and coroner are already there, as are a few different news organizations, and a few casual onlookers. The police have done an excellent job of securing the location, and ensuring no one gets access, mistakenly or otherwise.

The site is a mess.

There is no doubt that the individual on board suffered very little as the impact was very fast and the stop was very sudden. Nevertheless, the sensory input stuns me a little. The smell, the silence, and the visual carnage affect me, and it takes a minute or two for me to gather my thoughts. I have a job to do.

I do my best to employ psychological coping strategies to deal with the gruesome situation, but at the same time I’m fully aware that these are only strategies, and this awareness probably reduces their effectiveness. I try hard, perhaps too hard, to concentrate on the task at hand. I fear my outward appearance probably suggests to others that I’m cold or unfeeling.

As work at the scene starts to subside, I begin to focus my attention on other responsibilities. I need to interview the witnesses and gather background information. I need to find and talk to the next of kin.

The witness interviews are key. I sit down with several different people and discuss what they saw and heard. I try to get as much information as possible, without leading or prompting. Their stories differ somewhat. They always do. The emotional impact of witnessing such an event can be very traumatic, and it can certainly affect people’s recollection of minor details. I try to piece together the similarities in the stories, and ensure that I consider the possibilities of the dissimilar bits.

The next part is the hardest. I meet with the next of kin. They look devastated and their eyes are bloodshot. They are doing their best to hold back further tears, but it’s not really working. I’m shaking a little myself. I do my best to extend our sympathies, but it feels awkward. I abandon the to-do list and go with my gut feeling. There is some hand holding, some hugging, and some silence. I do my best to console them but I know that short of bringing back their loved one, nothing is going to help.

As we begin to talk and they tell me about the background of the pilot, I start to squint. I sometimes do this when I’m trying to concentrate, but I’m not sure that’s the case right now. I know generally in body language that it means that I’m skeptical, but at the moment, I’m not. I then remember my wife telling me that it looks aggressive, so I try to stop. I briefly consider opening my eyes wide to compensate, but thankfully stop myself before an unintended look of surprise overtakes my face.

And then it happens. I see a small tear trickle down the cheek of the spouse telling the story, and it feels as though there is a giant apple in my throat. I try to breath but for some reason I cannot. I feel water swell in my eyes and it begins to spill over my lower right eyelid. I attempt to breathe again, but instead I let out a sound that I don’t wish to replicate. And then it really happens. I’m crying.

It may have only lasted 10 seconds but it felt like 10 hours. The spouse hands me a tissue, and I try to re-gather my composure. I do, after a short period, but I’m teetering on the edge. The apple returns a few more times during our talk, but I’m able to keep the crying in check, or at least the audio portion, for the remainder of our time together.

As the investigation progresses, and beyond the crying, the family and I share another emotion – the desire to find out what happened. I do my best to keep them apprised of any new information we find along the way which might relate to the cause.

Even though it’s an extension to our mandate, I feel an enormous responsibility to families such as these. While I’m certainly committed to advancing flight safety, the emotional commitment I feel to provide the family with answers can often outweigh the former.

Although nowhere near the loss that the families have suffered, these accidents hit close to home for us too. I’m a pilot, I’ve flown that type of aircraft, I have a family and in fact that pilot reminded me a lot of my dad.

The next time around, that could be me, and my wife or daughter could be the one handing an investigator a tissue.

In the end, although these investigations can have an emotional toll on everyone, the toll or feeling of responsibility is often what drives us to work hard and find out what happened.

The best result for the family is closure. For us, it’s a lesson – a lesson that we can share and hopefully make the aviation system safer for everyone, and I remain optimistic that these lessons learned will outweigh the costs.

Image of Ewan Tasker

A Senior Regional Investigator in our Richmond Hill office, Ewan Tasker has over 20 years of civil aviation experience in flight operations and Air Traffic Control. Ewan spends a lot of time these days with his five year old daughter teaching each other new things. One of them is learning how to control emotional outbursts, the other is learning how planes fly.

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