A professional’s view on AirAsia, MH and other air tragedies: oh the humanity.

IT TOOK me some time to process the Facebook post by a friend and former industry associate Susan Claire Agbayani expressing her sympathies for the surviving families of the victims of the recent air tragedies of Air Asia QZ8501 and Malaysia MH370. The events reminded her of her own traumatic experience with the loss of a family member during the Cebu Pacific crash almost 17 years ago.

Screenshot of Claire’s FB post

Screenshot of Claire’s FB post

I have never gone through such a harrowing experience, and I pray that I never will. But reading of these events and my friend’s experience made me recall that I had been carrying this burden within me for so many years. A burden that was lifted only a couple of years back. Now that I remember it, I truly thank the Lord he removed that yoke.

I was the public relations guy in the country for one of the major international airlines for over a decade. And with that engagement the company embarked on a massive crisis management system that would involve all operations to shift to crisis mode. Special operations centers, systems and procedures were set up and manualized all over the world.

Every year there would be conferences with airport and airline operations personnel all over the world, covering processes in medical triage, life saving, operational emergency handling and everything associated with any possible emergency scenario.

In our field in communications, step by step guidelines were set up and everything was at the ready. In our manuals we committed to heart and mind the various processes in activating communications centers, survivor family facilities, deactivation of all marketing activities, shifting of the internet website into a dark site… everything including having a ready emergency box with office supplies, special press kits and stationery./

The mantra was “save the brand.” And in keeping this alive we had annual conferences with agencies and home office communications operators, aviation industry experts from all over the world meeting in Hong Kong. We would study scripts, practice processes, have a lot of role playing.

Back home we would have surprise exercises: a phone call in the middle of the night either just to check if you would answer your phone in time or all the way to a full practice run. Sometimes I would find myself and my crew deployed to NAIA and the special ops center in Metro Manila we had set up in our manuals, at three in the morning. It’s like committing a task to muscle memory. You don’t have time to stop and think. Just do it. Just save the brand.

But in all that time, no matter how professional you are and your practice is, I could not help but feel a tug in my heart for the would be victims and their families. Sure, it was all hypothetical. But the stress point – not just for me but for all of us involved – was the human factor of what could be a major tragedy.

Claire’s Facebook post reminded me of all this. My heart still goes out to the victims and their families. And while relieved as I am of no longer wondering when that phone would ring in a disaster I have to deal with, my heart too goes out to the professionals who have to. For in a crash site where survivors litter the ground, how does an emergency responder decide who gets attention first, before an equally suffering survivor a few feet away?

How does a communications manager set up press conference facilities with the message that all passengers perished?

How does a member of an airline ground staff explain to a child that they haven’t found her parents?

For almost a decade, I had dreams of that scene where the Hindenburg crashed into a gigantic fireball in New York, and a sobbing radio reporter Herbert Morrision, reporting on site: “Oh the humanity!” Then I would wake up to the sound of my phone ringing, and the voice at the other end saying: “Good morning. This is just a test…”

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