June 5, 2019

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

A Passenger Survivor Looks Back, Twenty Years Following the Crash of AA Flight 1420

June 1, 2019 marked the twentieth year since American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed in Little Rock, Arkansas. Following are details of the accident taken directly from the executive summary of the National Transportation and Safety Board’s (NTSB) final report.  

On June 1, 1999, at 2350:44 central daylight time, American Airlines flight 1420,a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-82 (MD-82), N215AA, crashed after it overran the end of runway 4R during landing at Little Rock National Airport in Little Rock,Arkansas. Flight 1420 departed from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport,Texas, about 2240 with 2 flight crewmembers, 4 flight attendants, and 139passengers aboard and touched down in Little Rock at 2350:20. After departing the end of the runway, the airplane struck several tubes extending outward from the left edge of the instrument landing system localizer array, located 411feet beyond the end of the runway; passed through a chain link security fence and over a rock embankment to a flood plain, located approximately 15 feet below the runway elevation; and collided with the structure supporting the runway 22L approach lighting system. The captain and 10 passengers were killed; the first officer, the flight attendants, and 105 passengers received serious or minor injuries; and 24 passengers were not injured. The airplane was destroyed by impact forces and a post-crash fire. Flight 1420 was operating under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part121 on an instrument flight rules flight plan.


As part of the Foundation’s case study research, several passengers, family members, and numerous American Airlines’ employees were interviewed for the purpose of learning what they felt was helpful and unhelpful in the aftermath of the accident. To advance the learning, Jeff Arnold, other survivors, and employee responders were featured in several training videos. 

Highlights from a twenty-year follow up with survivor Jeff Arnold appear below:   

1.  CVC:  How did you see the accident from a spiritual perspective? 
JA: I guess I saw this as “these things happen.”  While tragic for many, I view this event for me as many blessings received.  One blessing was I never felt in personal danger after the crash.  It wasn’t courage or being fearless, I just didn’t feel like I was in danger.  When I “came to” while the plane was still on fire and burning, it provided light, not threatening me.  I view getting knocked out early on in the crash as “protecting me”.  Since I was unconscious, I didn’t experience the fear or trauma as the plane was torn open, people hurt, or screaming.  I didn’t experience the panic as people evacuated the plane.  When I came to, it was calm.  I lost my glasses during the crash, so if I “saw” bodies, their image didn’t “register” with me.  The Good Lord protected me.   

2. CVC: Where did you get emotional support during the first few weeks? 
JA:  Many sources.  By Providence, the guy I was traveling with and I ended up at the same hospital and I was relieved when he visited me before we were released.  Later that day, a National Guard Behavioral Specialist looked in on me. She walked with me when we went to a shopette. I was grateful for the company – the Guard wanted to ensure I was okay to walk, and I suspect she “sounded me out” as we chatted and I guess got a thumb’s up. When I got back to Alaska four days later, my 1-yr old dog gave me all kinds of support and my wonderful neighbors looked in on me regularly.  Also, once home I was supported by my biological family, my National Guard family, and my church community (which was a hospital chapel where I volunteered visiting patients).  Longer term, the two events that helped the most were:  1) I was in a university writing weekend workshop on an island, a very relaxing setting. Initially, I was going to write a story about my 1-yr old dog, but my professor suggested I write about the crash.  2) One of the ladies that also attended the hospital chapel was an Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant (F/A).  She put me in touch with the lead F/A trainer who connected me with the Alaska Airlines Care Team, where I became a regular presenter. I gave a 15-20 minute presentation followed by Q&A and it was the Q&A portion that I think helped me express and rationalize what happened.

3-A. CVC:  What actions did you take to get through finishing the business of the crash? 
JA: I contacted an attorney. I think I was one of the last ones to retain an attorney. Communicating with some of the other passengers, they expressed frustrations that once they had an attorney, they couldn’t directly contact American. When I got my attorney, I asked that I still be allowed to talk with American’s CARE Team, providing I didn’t disclose any “case strategy”.  I was thrilled and confident with John Howie as my attorney, his integrity, and “how he does business” impressed me, along with his aviation background. 

3-B. CVC: What did you do to get your life under control?  
JA: Life was good before and life was good after (I generally take the approach, if things aren’t good, then I’ll make them that way – kind of like Green Peace’s slogan “Think globally, act locally”, so my take is to be aware of what’s going on, but focus on what I can effect).  I had a huge project at work that kept me focused (sometimes to the point of missing medical appointments).  “Work” worked with me and was very supportive in terms of adjusting my schedule, and verifying status and benefits. I was grateful American Airlines offered from the get-go to cover my medical expenses, so I don’t recall even seeing a bill. My wonderful neighbor kept up my lawn while I recovered. I think staying busy and engaged helped keep me on track. I’m fortunate I didn’t have significant, long-lasting injuries and that allowed me to “bounce back”. 

3-C. CVC: Did you attend any support groups?  
JA: I’m grateful to NTSB for providing a venue for survivors and family members to communicate. Realize, this was pre-Facebook, but that service helps now.              

4. CVC:  Did you need to forgive anyone---who? 
JA:  I don’t believe so, at least not crash-related!  Although I did apologize to Julia, the woman I walked with after the bus almost backed into a drainage ditch.  It was chilly and raining so I put my arm around her and regrettably with my left ear nearly severed, I bled a little bit on her:)
           
5-A. CVC:  What have you done creatively as a result of this traumatic experience? 
JA:  I contributed money to a survey of survivors and their interactions with Care Team members. I believe Care Teams are effective, but also feel they must continue to evolve.  Care offers vital services to survivors and family members, and must seek ways to improve that service, ensuring they perform them properly.  Hopefully the survey will provide some “lessons learned” and benefit the Care community and those they serve. The Care aspect that most impressed me was the manner with which one of my Care Team workers stressed in their role for assisting me. When I asked a financially related question, she told me that was not her role, but willingly provided me contact numbers. Making this distinction between Care Team and “the airline” helped his effectiveness.  I appreciate the “autonomy” afforded the Care workers by their airline.    
    Becoming a Care volunteer can mean putting oneself into challenging situations.  A Care volunteer could face circumstances and emotions ranging from reserving lodging for a survivor’s out of town family to being seen as a representative of the airline that tried to kill the passenger.  These examples, coupled with the day-to-day challenges of providing Care for a passenger, not to replace their “support systems” but rather augmenting them, can be wearing.   
    I think Care Team members can make significant contributions, not only to those they serve but to their company as well.  Because Care Team members are familiar with their company, they have the background for getting results from their organization, so they can better support their charge.  A side benefit is if, or as, they see areas that can be improved, hopefully their company will be more responsive to “one of their own”.   

5-B. CVC: Jeff, you also helped all of us learn about the need for a Care Card that is now used in multi-industries throughout the world.  The card helps survivors understand at least in part what the team can offer. 
JA: Yes, I was speaking one day at the Alaska Airlines Family Assistance Training and suggested how beneficial it would be if the team members had a small card to present to survivors, which listed ideas about what the company wanted to offer them. The leadership team at the airline followed my suggestion and the Care Card became a reality. I would later learn that the suggestion had gone viral, and companies throughout the world had their own version of the card bearing their logo.   

6. CVC:  Have you integrated the experience into your life? What did you leave behind and what do you carry with you?  
JA: I’m a bit more patient, especially when it comes to aircraft weather or maintenance delays.  I generally had a positive outlook before the crash.  Maybe I appreciate people and things a bit more and recognize blessings in events.       

7-A.  CVC:  This question is about your connection with the Spirit/God. How do you stay connected to those who have gone before you?  
JA: It varies, but usually I’m “numb” after they pass. Sometimes I pray/think about/talk with them. I’m trying to pray more. I usually pray and reflect before I turn in and reflect over my day’s actions and think about others. I’m trying to take a few moments in the morning and ask for guidance for the new day.   

7-B. CVC:  Did the accident change this in any way? 
JA: Not really.  My change is more from my advancing age and from seeing those close to death from my hospital volunteering.


The purpose of the Foundation’s interviews and surveys of survivors and responders is for the advancement of humanitarian response to traumatic events in the workplace. The survey Jeff referenced and interviews with all survivors yielded rich information on what was effective, and revealed areas in the response that could be improved. Jeff’s story of the accident and his survival, along with his traveling companion General Steve Korenek, appear in Handbook for Human Services Response, (Coarsey, 2004) [1].  Jeff and other survivors also appear in the video A Different Journey, (Coarsey, 2000) [2], scheduled to be re-released for down streaming, Summer 2019. 


[1] Handbook for Human Services Response, Coarsey, C.V. 2004

[2] A Different Journey, Coarsey, C.V. 2000


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