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Swissair Tragedy

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Workers, volunteers should seek support

Lisa Brown
Lighthouse staff

 COUNTY - It seems like they've carried the weight of the world upon their shoulders.

 From the fishermen and firefighters who first responded to the Swissair tragedy to the hundreds of military, RCMP officers and Ground Search and Rescue volunteers who continue to comb the beaches of two counties, they've given their all. Some bore the intense disappointment of finding no survivors. Others have seen sights most people can't even bear to think about.

 Their tasks have undoubtedly been horrific. It will be the job of their families, friends, colleagues - and teams of trained debriefers - to ensure they didn't give too much.

 Wendy Rafuse is a critical incident stress debriefer, South Shore team leader for the fire service. In the past seven years, the registered nurse and Chester Basin volunteer firefighter has done well over 100 debriefings all over Nova Scotia. She's worked with people associated with line-of-duty deaths, murders, drownings, suicides and industrial accidents. Now she's involved with the crash of Flight 111.

 "Typically after any tragedy the people involved and the emergency responders can have a number of stress reactions," Ms Rafuse says. "The sights and sounds that they've seen and heard are so overwhelming that it's difficult to cope."

 Personal lives can be affected. Job performance can suffer. By pushing themselves beyond normal limits, people put themselves in danger of succumbing to human frailties.

 All too often, Ms Rafuse says, people develop what she calls closet box syndrome. They put all their emotions and problems in a mental box and deal with everything by putting the box in a mental closet. But like all closets that don't get cleaned regularly, sooner or later it gets too full and the boxes come tumbling down.

 It's far better to deal with the emotions and problems of one incident at a time. That prevents people from becoming overwhelmed and makes them better equipped to deal with future situations.

 Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is about talking, sharing feelings and reactions in a non-threatening atmosphere with others involved in the same incident. Trained leaders help guide participants through the confidential sessions.

 "If people talk about these things rather than keeping it all bottled up inside of them," Ms Rafuse says, "they're able to move on and get back to the normal road of life quicker."

 In the days and weeks ahead, hundreds of rescue and salvage workers and volunteers will likely take part in CISD sessions. The military is providing them to their personnel and even held three debriefings in Halifax last week for family members of those involved in search and recovery operations for Swissair Flight 111.

 For some, Ms Rafuse says, the sessions are likely to be enough. Others may need more counselling in future to learn to cope with what they've seen and done. Tragedy and horror affect different people in different ways and to different depths. CISD can help normal people deal with normal reactions after abnormal events.

 "It's not the be all and the end all," Ms Rafuse says. "It's the first step in the healing process. It's the first of many steps."

 Not only rescue and salvage workers will be affected by this tragedy. Because of its magnitude, thousands of other people have been connected with it in some way - fishermen who weren't part of the search but couldn't go to sea because of the closure; hotel, airport and restaurant staff; the media; residents of Peggy's Cove, the surrounding area and far along the coast.

 To meet the needs of those people requiring personal assistance, a toll-free line was established Friday. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Callers who want an opportunity to speak about their personal involvement in the disaster and discuss any of their concerns or anxieties will be referred to the appropriate agency or service in their community.

 "The 1-877 line is an organized effort to ensure people who don't have easy access to counselling or other services know that there are support services available to them," Bob St. Laurent, a Department of Health official, said last week.

 The counselling line is an initiative of the operations centre organized by the provincial Departments of Health and Community Services and the Red Cross. The centre was established to respond to the needs of the families of the Swissair passengers and crew, community residents and all those who have played a part in Nova Scotia's response to the tragedy.

 The toll-free assistance number for anyone involved in any aspect of the Swissair Flight 111 tragedy is 1-877-806-2895.


Residents along the South Shore have been expressing their sorrow for the victims of Flight 111 by putting up signs, flying flags at half mast and attaching yellow ribbons to their homes.

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