TESTIMONY OF M. VICTORIA CUMMOCK' PRESIDENT OF FAMILIES OF PAN AM 103/LOCKERIBIE WIDOW JOHN B. CUMMOCK
On December 21, 1988 at 9 p.m my doorbell rang. It was my husband's boss, he asked me if I had heard about John. He then told me that a Pan-Am plane had crashed about twelve hours ago over Lockerbie and he thought John was aboard. With a great degree of confidence I tried to ease his concern. Clearly, after so many hours I would have had "Official word" of the doomed flight if John was aboard. In fact John was lying dead in the nose cone of the plane in a field in Tundergarth, a part of Lockerbie, Scotland. Little did I know that the crash of Pan Am 103, was the begining of my living nightmare.
I spent the next 5 hours of that night on the to phone Pan-Am trying to get them to confirm John had boarded the ill-fated plane. In my frustration to get information, I wanted to go to the airport but I had three little ones sound asleep that were only 3,4, and 6 years old. I was forced to rely on the phones, dialing and re-dialing for hours on end- When finally I got through, the person on the other end would ask me questions but not tell me if John was on the manifest..
Each time, I was given yet another phone number to call that was equally difficult to reach, At 4 a.m., nearly 20 hours after the plane went down, I got through to Pan Am in New York. I was told it would be better if I could call back in a day or so since Pan Am was checking hospitals for survivors, I was shocked and outraged.
I asked the woman "Do you have a John Cummock on the manifest? She replied, "Yes, I think so". I asked, "Are the media reports accurate witch state that the plane came apart at 31,000 feet, traveling 500 knots with 150 mph crosswinds? he replied, "Yes, I think so". I then asked , "To your knowledge has anyone ever jumped out of a plane at 3 1,000 feet without a parachute and survived?" She replied, "No ma'am".
I said "How could you think of telling me to wait, to suggest I call back, to hold out hope as you check the hospital? Obviously those in the hospital were the injured people on the ground. I have three little ones that will be up in a matter of hours filled with excitement that daddy is coming home for Christmas. I don't want my children or John's family to learn from the newspaper their son is dead in a field in Scotland". I told the woman if I didn't get official information my next call would be to was the media to ask for help and official information. Five minutes passed and the phone rang it was a Senior Vice-president of Public Relations who told me John was aboard Pan Am 103 and there were no survivors.
Seven years ago I sat before this committee testifying along with other Pan Am families about the blatant inhumane treatment by Pan Am of the next of kin. You heard horror story after horror story about the lack of airline coordination in all phases of crisis management from notification, recovery, and identification, to return of the remains. Some families never received notification while others had messages left by Pan Am on the answering machines telling thern their daughter was dead. Mutilated bodies of the passengers were shipped home like parcels without any notice or special handling. Some families got the wrong body and didn't know where to return the wrong one nor where to find their loved one's remains. There were no death certificates for months leaving some widows evicted on the street because probate could not begin.
We were not allowed to see death certificates or autopsy reports or know how any details or see autopsy reports. Via the media the world had first hand knowledge of all the details of our families' deaths before we did.
The next-of-kin of the 270 passengers of Pan Am 103 testified before dozens of Congressional hearings only to have many here in Congress conclude that the horrendous treatment of the 270 families of Pan Am 103 was a fluke. It was felt that, if such an air disaster had happened in the United States, the response would have been different, that somehow it would have been better.
In the past seven years I have met the families of hundreds of air disaster victims. Sadly, the horror stories about airline crisis mismanagement have not changed much. Only the names of the airline passengers and their families have changed.
In this committee room today are the family representatives from air disasters, both domestic and international, that cry out for change. The demand for industrywide reform is long overdue. There is no other industry in this nation where the victims and their families are left solely in the hands of the company that just killed them.
At the outset of a disaster, the families are rendered helpless fodder and left to endure the tragic self-serving abuse of intrusive groups like the airlines, lawyers, media, and insurance companies. The next of kin, who are stunned, dazed and in disbelief,turn to the authorities for information only to find out that their conduit for information is the airline that just killed their loved one their loved one. As with any other disaster, whether natural or man-made, the care and handling of victims should be put in the hands of the disaster professionals that are trained, experienced and have no bias or conflict of interest.
The sole responsibility of the "Professional Disaster Manageer" is to avoid "retraumatization of the families by protecting them from these intrusive groups and coordinating the flow of official information about the recovery and status of the disaster investigation.
Since the crash of Valujet 592, 1 have spent the better part of a month working as a victim's advocate for the passengers' families along with the National Transportation Safety Board, Metro-Dade Fire Rescue, Medical Examiner's Office, and the Red Cross. In many ways what I saw was the lithmus test of the "victims advocate" role. To my knowledge it was the first time that family members were housed together in a hotel and received two briefings a day by the authorities in charge of each area of the disaster, This is in contrast to what normally transpires during an air disaster-. the airline employee briefing the families gives only the Airline's tailored version of the post-crash information.
Luckily this mistreatment didn't happen to the families of Valujet 592. Because of the presence of the NTSB, in concert with my efforts as a family advocate, families who attended the Miami briefings received first hand official information from all the local authorities and accurate answers to their questions. However, once they left Miami, the flow of information ended. For the families who could not come to there never was any attempt to relay information to them, so, for them, the shock, isolation, and disbelief continues.
It is essential during the course of any air disaster to educate the families as to the reality of the outcome of the recovery process. By this I mean that, unlike any other transportation disaster, air crashes are violent in nature. Specifically, when a plane travelling in excess of 300 mph impacts the earth it breaks up into pieces as do the passengers inside of it. Although air disasters vary one from the other, in the majority of cases the likelihood of recovering a body intact happens seldom. The magnitude of an air disaster exceeds that of any disaster because of the large number of people involved, the suddenness of the crash and the extreme violent nature of the event. This immediately throws families into shock- and disbelief. It is human nature not to accept the possibility of such a horrible death for anyone that you love.
It is the role of the lead disaster professional not only to educate the families about the general procedures of an air disaster and brief them as to the specifics of their air disaster, but also to help them cope with the information as they are given it. For example, they must be the conduit between the local medical examiner's office for necessary information for the identification of the remains of their loved ones of the families. The process of filling out the multiple forms by the family is a heart wrenching and extremely sensitive process putting the families into deep anguish and despair. Therefore, the experienced mental health professional is required not only to practice a great degree of patience in order to facilitate the flow of this information, but also to use techniques which avoid further traumatization.
There is another key factor regarding the confidenfiality of the information gathered for the Medical Examiner. Currently, the airlines are the liaison between the families and the medical examiner's office. This provides the airline with access to extremely sensitive information as to the passengers' general health which will later be used against the family during the liability portion of every air disaster civil suit, In one's desperation to identify and reclaim one's loved one, the next of kin provide detailed medical and dental records of the passenger in order to speed up the identification and recovery of their loved one's mutilated body. The airlines, under the lead "disaster care team role" gilthers this very sensitive information for a double purpose.- it sends one copy to the medical exaniiner, and quietly sends the second copy to the airline underwriter to be used as the insurance company puts together a dossier of each of the dead and begins to assess a dollar value of a passenger's worth.
This a total breech of confidentiality and a misuse of authority that has been allowed: noone else but the airlines have filled this role. It is an outrage. With no family advocate to protect the families, they are vunerable to self-serving, intrusive forces in their desperate, need to be reunited with their loveds ones, whether the loved ones are dead or injured and alive.
Mr. Charmian and Committee members, we all know that planes will go down at different times for different reasons. Once a plane has crashed we cannot change that, but we can change the way in which we deal with the bereaved farnihes.
There are a litany of requirements governing the airlines for the carehandling of passengers and crew during the course of passenger flights provided they land safely. Their are no requirements delineating caring and handling of the injured or dead passengers/crew, their remains, their personal effects, nor for the handling of the next of kin of the victims. The type of response by the airline for the care and handling of the injured or dead passengers and crew in an air disaster varies from airline to airline and disaster to disaster. Hence, the response becomes a cost control issue between the airline and their insurance provider at the expense of the passengers and their next of kin.
All decisions are made to limit the exposure and liability of the airline which are prudent and reasonable from the corporate standpoint. However, since the flow and access of any official information is controlled by the airline, the families' constitutional rights to freedom of information are violated. Also, and most importantly, it is in total conflict with necessary humane care of the families.
Today's hearing is specifically to address the treatment of the families after airline disasters. As with any disaster, there are professio'nals that are trained to respond to the specific areas of need by specific areas of expertise. In terms of rescue and recovery, it is the local professional fire rescue and police emergency personnel who are sent to do that job. In terms of investigating a trasnportation disaster, it is the NTSB that is sent in to recover the wreckage and determine the cost of the disaster. As bodies and remains are recovered it is the local examiner's job to try identify the remains and reunite them with the next of kin.
It should also be the response of disaster care professionals such as the Red Cross Mental Health Disaster Team to be the professionals to coordinate the victims' families as the currently do with any other type of national disaster except aviation..
After the Oklahoma City bombing I spent 11 days under the sponsorship of the Red Cross with the families of the 168 people trapped in the Morrow Building. The needs of the families for information after the bombing parallels the needs of any next of kin during an air disaster. In Oklahoma City the lead agency to care for and coordinate the needs of the families, and coordinate the information flow to and from the families was the National Red Cross, They coordinated the twice daily briefings, and protected families from all intrusive forces.
The process of responding to all aspects of crisis management was done in a moral, ethical, and humane manner having only the victims' and their families' best interests at heart. This process avoided retraumatization for the families during the long post crash process that begins with initial contact and confirmation of those involved in the disaster, the holding of vigil, the filling out of medical examiner's forms, the death identification, and notification and return of reamins. The Red Cross protected the families who chose not to deal with the media, lawyers, insurance companies, and other self-serving groups during the first 30 days.
Based upon the litany of horror stories, by American citizens affected by mishandling of the airlines, and all of the testimony you have listened to today and over the past years, it is evident that there is a dire need to orchestrate the involvement of "a professional disaster team", such as the Red Cross, in every air disaster no matter the location or airline involved.
It is imperative the "lead agency", acting, as a family advocate, care for and handle the disaster victirns' families, and coordinate on their behalf with the local authorities. The Red Cross is an organization that is established in every community of this country and can facilitate this function. They are always ready to respond. It is the Red Cross that is professionally trained, licensed, and already structured to deliver a high level of professional disaster care.
As a nation, we insure the response and assistance for our citizens during all national disaster crises. As a nation, we should afford no less care for victims of air disasters and their families. The time is long overdue. The litany of airline industry mistakes and rnishandlings are horrific and historically endless. More planes will go down for different reasons. Capitol Hill needs to respond to the outcry of all of us here today. Authority must be given to a lead disaster agency, such as the NTSB, to call in the Red Cross on behalf of the flying public.
Let's not wait for another disaster before we implement this change.
Thank.you for your consideration.
Victoria Cummock's phone-number: 1-800-592-8770
Fan-mail received by TIME magazine in 1990 after their first feature story on Victoria Cummoc:
TIME/People, 01-15-1990, pp 4. As a seven-year flight attendant and mother of a 4-year-old son, I was touched by Vicky Cummock's story. Every time I board a plane, I subconsciously ask, ''Will this be the time the engines fail or some madman manages to board with a weapon?'' Airport security often employs low-paid workers for a job protecting million-dollar airplanes and priceless human beings. For myself and others who fly for a living, I thank Vicky Cummock for her crusade. I wish, as she does, that it had been in time to stop the destruction of Flight 103. Elisabeth Brooks Louisville, Ky. It saddens me tremendously to read the published accusations of Pan Am's uncaring and shoddy treatment of families involved in the Flight 103 disaster. Working both in London and Lockerbie, I was one of many Pan Am employees involved in efforts to assist the relatives of the deceased. Most of the flight crew were friends I had worked with during my 11 years at the London base. Some employees put in full days at their offices and then came to the London hotel ((where Pan Am had set up a command center)) to assist with families or answer phones all night long. Other employees traveled long distances to help. Perhaps we were not able to meet the expectations and requests of every single relative, yet I know that we did provide a great deal of compassionate support and assistance. Aleta J. Kennedy Pleasanton, Calif.