AIN Blog: There If You Need Them…But Hope You Never Will.

 - May 22, 2013, 10:12 AM

One of the unfortunate but unavoidable facts of aviation is that accidents happen. While investigators work to determine why, and attorneys debate over who is responsible, in nearly every case there is a tragic human element involved-families of victims, who suddenly have their lives torn apart. It is a situation no one wants to be in.

There is no way to prepare for it, but there is one group that looks to help people in that situation, as it was created by those who have been there before. The Air Crash Victims Families Group, based in Ridgewood, N.J.,  was founded in 1983, after the downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by a Soviet fighter after the Boeing 747 strayed off course on a flight from the U.S. to Seoul. The airliner was shot down near a restricted Soviet base on the Kamchatka Peninsula, severely straining relations between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. While the diplomatic communiqués flew fast and furiously between Washington and Moscow, the family members of the 269 people on board were largely left in the dark. Hans Ephraimson, a retired journalist who lost his daughter on the flight, serves as the group’s spokesman. Over lunch one day, he recalled how he heard about the loss of the aircraft as he was heading into work, and how he immediately called the State Department when he arrived at his office.

Amidst the initial confusion, which included erroneous media reports of the jetliner making a forced landing, he received no official information. Korean Air was similarly non-responsive. He then called a friend who worked at the Hong Kong hotel where his daughter was heading, who confirmed his worst fears that the aircraft had indeed crashed. With information scarce, groups of families in the 16 countries representing those who lost their lives on the flight, mainly South Korea, Japan and the U.S., began to coalesce, driven by their shared grief and their need for answers to questions such as “how could an incident such as this happen?” and “what is our legal position?” Some groups began to retain attorneys, who did not initially communicate with each other. Political tensions prevented authorities from conducting a full inquiry into the incident.

The Soviet Union refused to admit it had shot down the aircraft for more than a week and hindered the investigation. Indeed, the aircraft’s black boxes were not released until after the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a decade later. The international family groups began to make contact with each other and share information gleaned from many sources, including classified information from the U.S. and Soviet governments. Eventually ICAO recognized the group in 1985 and asked for its assistance in the investigation.

From this beginning, the group eventually formed an umbrella organization known as the Air Crash Victims Families Group (ACVFG), which mobilizes after each air disaster (among them some of the most infamous of air disasters), such as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the hijacked airliners on 9/11, and more recently Air France Flight 447 in 2009, assisting the victims’ families with their specific needs, informing them of their rights, and helping them deal with government agencies and aviation companies.

The organization now has international status as an ICAO invited observer and a stakeholder in the European Union. ACVFG serves as an information facilitator as well as an advocate for policy change issues with regards to the rights of crash victims as defined by the 1999 Montreal Convention. It functions as a go-between wherever it is needed, whether it’s representing victims of a crash in Karachi, or even the widows of Australian crop dusters.

While its major focus has been airliner accidents, mainly due to the numbers of people involved, the group can also assist with business aviation accidents, based on the first-hand experience of one if its members. Tricia Andria-Coffman’s husband was on the Cessna Citation 560 that went down on approach in Pueblo, Colo., in February 2005. The crash of the Circuit City-owned twinjet, one of two making the flight, claimed the lives of all eight people on board (two pilots and six passengers). Andria-Coffman’s husband was initially on the second jet, which landed safely, but made the fateful move to the accident aircraft during a refueling stop, when requested to do so by the pilot.

During a company-organized memorial service at the crash site on the first anniversary of the accident, she brought a metal detector, in hopes of finding her husband’s watch, which was among his effects that were never recovered. As she scoured the site in the cold, she silently challenged her late husband to prove his presence, by helping her find his watch. Just as she gave up on using the metal detector due to the number of false alarms from the remaining metal fragments in the area, she saw a glint of shiny metal and knew she had found her treasure.  Later that day, she came across the wedding ring that another victim’s widow was searching for.

After she relayed her remarkable story to people she had befriended at the NTSB during the course of the investigation, they invited her to speak at the bureau’s headquarters on the human aspect of disaster response. There she became acquainted with several ACVFG members and soon joined the group. She has also given presentations to several airlines as well as NetJets, regarding the level of support the aviation industry should provide victims’ families, based on the consideration her family and those of the other victims received from her late husband’s employer.

“If you do the right thing, no one might ever know, but when people don’t do the right thing, they are going to know about it,” she said.

Circuit City (which has since gone out of business) followed the same protocols that major airlines are required to under the family assistance act, even though under current regulations, the company wasn’t required to do anything. Mindful of her own dark days, Andria-Coffman remains willing to help those who find themselves in a similarly unthinkable situation.