Childcare team on alert after crash

BY SUSAN KIM | Wilkes-Barre, PA | May 22, 2000

Pennsylvania members of the Disaster Child Care (DCC) ministry are on alert and may

be asked to respond to the Sunday plane crash near the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

International Airport.

The charter plane, which was carrying 19 people, went down as it attempted to land in a

light rain. Witnesses spotted a fire and wreckage in the woods nine miles south of the

airport but no signs of survivors were found on Sunday.

DCC members were put on alert by the American Red Cross, which sent emergency

response teams to the site on Sunday night. "We are ready to respond if needed," said

Jean Myers, a DCC regional coordinator.

DCC, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, trains volunteers of all faiths how to care

for children after disasters. DCC has a cooperative agreement with the Red Cross but also

is activated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other faith-based response

groups, or on its own.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that visibility was poor as the plane

attempted to land but that the wreck was likely caused when both engines on the plane

apparently failed. Emergency crews are still searching the wreckage. Seventeen

passengers and two crew members were aboard.

Childcare teams have responded to other recent plane crashes in the past with less than 24

hours notice. With a national network of volunteers, DCC provides trained caregivers who travel to a disaster site, set up space for children of victims and

relatives, and provide them with personal attention. Identified by blue-checked smocks, DCC volunteers also travel with a "Kit of Comfort" which contains

everything they need to organize a childcare center at a disaster site, manage registration of children, and set up one or more play centers for children.

"What we do is mental health," said Myers, who trains DCC volunteers on how to spot the symptoms of trauma in children, how to effectively listen to

children, and how to act themselves as a caring and nonjudgmental presence.

"But it's not any kind of psychiatric or psychological diagnosis," added Lydia Walker, one of the chief administrators of the program. "We are trained to

carefully observe children. But it's not our job to interpret it or diagnose it. It's our job to provide children with what they need at that moment. And that

can be a hug, some human contact, someone to listen, and physical comfort. A calm presence is what's most important."

In the past, DCC teams have so effectively exuded that calmness that adults at the disaster site benefited from their presence as well. Walker said she

remembers responding on the scene when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 nose-dived into the Pacific Ocean, killing 88 people on board.

"We set up a childcare center, which was a very secure location and only a few people were allowed in there. But we had regular visits from Red Cross

mental health workers who would just come in and sit in the room, where the children were playing. What we provide -- a voice that says 'it's okay how

you are right now' -- is good stuff! It's good for the kids and it's good for us adults. It would be nice if the world was like that all the time."

DCC volunteers in Pennsylvania knew about the crash soon after it happened. Through a calling tree network that can reach many volunteers

simultaneously, DCC put volunteers on alert, meaning they can quickly leave when activated.

The plane, operated by Executive Airlines, left the Atlantic City Airport about 10:30 a.m. Sunday and was scheduled to land in Wilkes-Barre an hour later. But

the 1988 BA-31 Jetstream disappeared from radar about 11:40 a.m. during a second instrument approach, typically performed if the visibility is poor or if

there is a low cloud deck.

Children at the scene of an air crash or another disaster may or may not exhibit regressive behaviors, said Myers. "We once had a nine-year-old walk into a

childcare center with a baby bottle," she said. "But other children don't regress at all."

Myers and Walker spent most of the weekend training 16 potential new DCC volunteers, who will require more training before being activated for

Sunday's crash.

"They may just be in shock. You'll see some kids wandering around in a daze after a disaster," said Walker. "Shock is a natural way for the body to shut

down. Some children won't speak for weeks or months after a disaster."

Pain and anger are other common reactions after a disaster, Walker added. "You won't hear children saying 'I'm really angry with God for letting this

happen' but you might see them smashing play-dough against a wall."

If DCC volunteers observe behaviors that will likely require long-term attention, they refer families to mental health professionals.

One of the most challenging questions children ask DCC volunteers is if a disaster could happen again. "The fact is -- it could happen again," said Walker.

"You can't tell them it will never happen again. But you can tell them you're here with them right now, and that they're safe right now. And, if you know

how to set up the right environment for a child, often they can just look around and find what they need right there."

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