The Rev. T.H. Peoples has spent five decades witnessing life’s struggles firsthand.
“You can tell when someone is with you and when they are genuine,” said Peoples, who is helping the families of cousins Priscilla Johnson of Lexington and JoAnn Wright of Cincinnati.
“There was just a beautiful spirit,” said Peoples of the Comair care team members who were already with the families Sunday when he arrived. “I’ve been a minister for almost 50 years, and I have not seen such sensitivity.”
Many families of the victims of Comair Flight 5191 are praising the efforts of the Delta and Comair care team members assigned to them. They’ve flown in from far-flung locations with out-of-town families. They’ve driven cars on unfamiliar streets. They’ve fetched toothbrushes. They’ve done “whatever the family needed,” said Peoples, pastor at Pleasant Green Baptist Church.
The airlines haven’t always worked that way.
They weren’t required to provide any help until the Family Assistance Act passed in 1996, after years of urging by groups of victims’ relatives from past air disasters.
Before the federal law, airlines determined what they did, or did not do, for family members, including paying for transportation and hotels. The airlines even controlled information the relatives received about the crash and the investigation.
The act, outlined in a 44-page document, came specifically in response to concern over families’ treatment following three American airline tragedies killing more than 400 people between 1994 and 1996.
“There was a real need for this,” said Kendra St. Charles-Hall, a family rights activist who helped craft that law. “Some of the horror stories you just wouldn’t believe.”
She recalled one incident in which an airline was found to have hauled salvageable personal belongings from a crash site into a dumpster without consulting families.
But since then, the volunteers from the airlines who become care team members have served as sort of personal attachs.
Seattle resident Paige Stockley lost her parents, Tom and Peggy Stockley, in the Jan. 31, 2000, crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California coast.
Shortly after getting word of the accident, Stockley drove to the Seattle airport, where she was assigned a care team member.
Even though she didn’t mesh with the first volunteer assigned to her -- “she kept saying she knew how we felt because she just had an apartment fire,” Stockley said -- she was able to request a new one.
“He just completely took care of me,” Stockley said of the California-based airline mechanic.
He helped her check into her hotel in Southern California and escorted her to the crash site and memorial services in Ventura County. He even flew from California to Seattle later to deliver her parents’ ashes.
Still, the families of crash victims of Flight 5191 can expect the relationship with their care volunteer to cool in coming days.
“Everybody has this feeling at the same time that it probably needs to be terminated,” she said of those relationships. “The people who care for you work for the people who just killed your parents. You have to imagine how difficult it can be.”
Sharon Bryson, director of Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance in Washington, said one of the biggest changes in how airlines deal with family members is having the National Transportation Safety Board serve as a firewall that works as an intermediary between the relatives and the airlines and helps coordinate other groups such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
The federal guidelines help in two primary ways, said Bryson, whose agency is part of NTSB:
The NTSB, unlike the airlines, can provide the most accurate and updated information on the crash investigation.
And by creating a protocol for setting up a central location and providing airlines with guidelines for what they must provide, families are better served.
Bryson, who helped craft the act, left Lexington yesterday after coordinating help for the victims’ relatives since Sunday’s crash.
Comair’s care team was created in response to the act. The airline deployed 126 care team members in response to Flight 5191, said Kate Marx, Comair spokeswoman. Team members take paid leave from their jobs as mechanics or gate agents or finance officials, Marx said, and are trained in a day-long orientation seminar.
Gary van der Meer, general manager of The Crowne Plaza Campbell House, said the 290 rooms at the hotel and 70 rooms at the adjacent Best Western are booked through Friday night, with roughly three-quarters filled by victims’ family members and Delta-Comair care team members.
Rick Queen, who was very critical of Comair Sunday afternoon, thinks the care team members who arrived in Lexington on Monday helped alleviate the initial lack of communication. “They are personally and genuinely interested” in helping the families, he said.