How Do We Survive Surviving

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How do we survive surviving?

By Ann SanCartier for Firestorm

Imagine.  You head to pick up your child from school and abruptly, the only thing separating you, your daughter and your sister from 200 mile per hour winds are two collapsed walls supporting each other in a triangular formation. You hold your CiaCdaughter with adrenaline-induced strength while you scream and pray as the realistic fear of being sucked up into a monster overwhelms you. That’s what happened to a family I spoke with who survived the Moore, Oklahoma Tornado. As they cowered for protection at Briarwood Elementary, what we now know to be an E5 tornado, whipped them with flying debris leaving their feet, arms, and heads lacerated by its ferocity.

As this mother shared her traumatic experience with me, she related that her sister was waiting in their van parked outside the school. When the school advised her that a tornado had touched down and to take cover, she called her sister from her cell phone, urging her to quickly join them in the school. She thanks God she did so, because moments later the van was picked up and thrown into the disastrous chaos that was known as their hometown only minutes before.

The trauma doesn’t end there. A younger daughter was at another school nearby.  The young girl called her brother, pleading with him to drive to her school as fast as he could, but he was unable to pass through due to the massive storm debris.  Leaving his car in the middle of the street, the brother ran through mud, trees and the fragmented aftermath to her school, relieved when he found her in good condition.

The young man and his cousins then began responding to screams in the neighboring lots.  They dug through remains of a house and uncovered an older couple who had been completely stripped of their clothing by the storm’s force, but were alive. He quickly moved to the rubble next door, helping to free an injured woman; a woman screaming that her baby had been ripped from her arms. The young man soon found the baby in an unimaginable condition. He picked her up; lifeless. He collapsed in the street unable to continue his honorable, heroic measures.

This is trauma. This is crisis.

This is the unimaginable horror brought to life for everyday people.  Coping is an understatement. “Getting over it” doesn’t happen. Not this week; not this year; not the next forty years. It becomes a part of you. At least that’s the way Ron Infantino described to me, his experience in the first jumbo jet crash of Eastern Airlines flight 401 in 1972.

Shortly before the flight was to land in Miami, Ron’s new bride of 21 days, Lily, left her seat to use the facilities. When she returned, the couple switched seats. Thirty minutes later, Ron found himself in the twirling metal tube as the plane cartwheeled out of control. He survived. Lily didn’t.

InfantinoHow do we survive after surviving?

The moment of crisis seems to be our darkest hour; however, in spite of crises we are required to continue on this timeline called life. When we or our loved ones experience something horrific, how can we journey on? How do we help others to recover and rediscover a sense of normalcy?

There are no easy answers or quick fixes but there is hope and there is help. As researched has revealed, Psychological First Aid applied quickly has a positive impact on the short term and long term recovery process.  It is critical that we help those traumatized by first meeting their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter, safety), providing information, connecting them to their loved ones and own support system, and protecting them from further trauma or secondary assaults. Once the immediacy of care has subsided, the difficult journey of time begins.

For those that are part of their daily lives post-crisis, please do not assume that life is “back to normal”. Your role now becomes one of compassionate support; understanding that this event has changed how they perceive life and, without any choice of their own, has become a part of who they are. Continue to use compassionate communication skills like active listening, honoring the event’s anniversary, and being patient when their recovery seems like it will never end. Your support and love may include referring them to a counselor, and that’s OK. Over time, allow them to verbally process and don’t be afraid to talk about it. Listen…and listen some more.

Ron suffered serious physical injuries and unfathomable emotional pain yet recovery did take place. Forty years have passed since the tragedy of Eastern Airlines 401 and although Ron continued on with a normal life, he sees things differently. He rates things from 1 to 10, with 10 being an airplane crash. When he’s frustrated with the increasing Miami traffic, he thinks to himself, “Is this a 10?” He is able to put things in a perspective that most of us cannot. “For some time”, Ron said, “my mind and my heart weren’t coherent. I knew it wasn’t my fault but I couldn’t reconcile the two. Eventually, I realized that this could have happened to anybody. Time, understanding and forgiveness are what helped me with the tragedy of the accident and the survivor guilt, but my heart still hurts. The journey of recovery is life-long.”

Let’s walk alongside those affected by the Moore tornado as they begin their difficult journey. You can find ways to help today by downloading my paper for Firestorm Connecting with those in Crisis – a Post-Moore, Oklahoma Brief.

If you are trying to recover from the devastating tornadoes in Moore, please visit for updated resources and information.

Every crisis is a human crisis. Caring for those in their darkest hours is our priority during a tragic event. The task seems daunting but in reality, it may be easier than you think. Psychological First Aid, much like Medical First Aid, has become a standard of care because the principles have affirming success and almost anyone can learn and apply it.

Psychological First Aid creates an environment where survivors, survivor loved ones, and victim loved ones have the best opportunity to begin the healing process.

asancartier2Employee Crisis Care Planning Expert Ann SanCartier is a Firestorm Expert Council member and the founder of The Crisis Compass which provides crisis management consultation, training, plan development and response support. Ann has unique expertise and experience on managing the human side of a crisis with organizational excellence and compassion.

Previously a crisis manager for a major international airline, she developed and executed emergency response plans for aviation accidents, mass casualties, operational continuity plans and man-made and natural disasters. Her experience includes responses to aircraft accidents and incidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and operational disruptions. She is a national speaker on crisis management, family assistance and grief and loss support.

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