Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

We Must Change the Way We Handle Disasters
April 8, 2010


On Monday, a massive methane gas explosion rocked Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch coal mine near Whitesville, West Virginia. At this writing, 25 miners are confirmed dead and four are still missing.

Once again, we stand vigil for a coal mine disaster in our region. Once again, we wait, we hope, many pray, for at least some good news. We don't yet know all of the details; the authorities will investigate. But we do know that once again, the corporations and the government are handling the situation poorly. Our procedure for managing communications in disasters is cruel and unconscionable, but we can correct it easily.

Massey company officials, including CEO Don Blankenship, refused to meet with the miners' families on Monday and Tuesday. They refused even to give the most basic information until after strong criticism in the media. Blankenship met with the families on Wednesday, but still refuses to release the identities of those confirmed dead to their own families. After the criticism reached the media, Massey posted a "condolence" message on its website. Too little, too late. Their behavior defies all logic and all human decency.

Massey is a non-union company, reportedly with hundreds of safety violations in the past year. I'll leave the safety, health, and environmental issues to those better equipped for those discussions. But I know a bit about the communications issues.

My friend was one of 132 people killed in the crash of USAir Flight 427 outside Pittsburgh on September 8, 1994. It was the longest-running investigation of an air disaster in US history. The airline refused to release a passenger list for two days after the crash, and badly mangled all communications with the families of those lost throughout the process. We learned then that the companies should NEVER control the flow of information to the families in disaster situations. They most likely have at least some liability and therefore have a conflict of interest.

From their frustration and anger, the families formed the Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League. ADSL members worked vigorously for two years, planning, organizing, and lobbying. On October 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 104-264, which contains the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. This led to the Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters.

The act provides two things:
• In cases of aircraft accidents involving major loss of life, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board will designate an NTSB employee as the primary liaison between the families, the federal government, and the airline carrier for all information about the accident.

• The NTSB chair will designate an independent nonprofit organization, with experience in disasters and post-trauma communication with families, to coordinate the emotional care and support of the families of passengers involved in the accident.

If you were involved in a car accident with fatalities, you certainly would not be permitted to control the information to the authorities, media, and victims' families. You wouldn't decide whether or when to notify the families, or to return the personal effects to them. Why do we permit coal companies, airlines, construction companies, and other corporations to do so?

John Kretz, founding executive director of the Flight 427 ADSL, said yesterday that the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act should be extended to situations like this. It certainly makes sense and would be easy to implement.

After the Sago mine tragedy in 2006, I wrote to WV Governor Joe Manchin, suggesting this very plan. He did not respond to my letter. I'll send him a copy of this column. Perhaps he'll pay attention now.

Those of us whose loved ones work in dangerous industries are always aware that the dreaded phone call can come at any time. We are strong. We get through it by sticking together. But we all deserve better.

Perhaps, in time, the good families in West Virginia can find the strength to lead the effort. Best wishes for that strength and courage to them all.

For More Information:

Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 
Pages 53 - 57 

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Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
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