A plane disappeared and the families are waiting...

Although flying is statistically the safest mode of travel, the list of air disasters during the 2008–2018 decade is long. It includes Yemenia Airways IY626 and Air France AF447 in 2009, Lao Airlines QV301 in 2013, Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 and Air Algérie AH5017 in 2014, Germanwings 4U9525 in 2015, and EgyptAir MS804 in 2016.

The Crisis Centre is mobilized...

The Crisis Centre is mobilized during any aircraft disappearance or crash. These crises, which are quite shocking due to their suddenness and large casualty numbers, present a very specific situation. It is important to quickly understand what happened, respond to family members’ inquiries and establish the list of victims. The flight manifest (passenger list) is a reference point, but some travellers may have missed their flight or decided not to travel at the last minute. Passengers sometimes board at the last minute without being included on the initial manifest. The reasons for a crash are determined following an investigation by specialists that may take years. For the CDCS’s Individual Cases Unit, handling an air disaster means managing the first hours and days with families, identifying victims and repatriating their bodies.

It also means being available

It also means being available throughout the investigation and legal proceedings. This is an important period during which strong relationships must be created and staff must be available to provide psychological, administrative and legal assistance to victims’ families. Until late 2018, this was the role of the ambassador in charge of air disasters, who reported to the CDCS. The ambassador would ensure that families received all necessary assistance, especially that which gives them access to verified information to address their needs and questions as well as to help them prepare and complete necessary procedures. Efforts focused on establishing relationships and dialogue on a daily basis to provide a contact point for grieving families who may have to deal with official procedures for years to come. A new system has now been created, coordinated by the Interministerial Delegation for Victim Support (DIAV), to support victims’ families in the long term. The diplomatic dimension of addressing air disasters remains the responsibility of the CDCS.

Personnal Account

Why do we need a memorial?

For as long as humans have been living in civilization, they have ritualised grief and the burial of the dead. The cemetery always plays a key role in these rites because it is the place where we separate ourselves from the dead and where we gather to pay our respects. The first step towards accepting death is participating in the funeral and the burial or cremation. Later, coming back to the tomb helps to go through the grieving process by gradually accepting that the place of the deceased individual is now with the dead.
When an individual dies far from France it is very important for families for the body to be repatriated so that a ceremony to say goodbye may be held. Within the Crisis and Support Centre’s Individual Case Support Unit, Virginie Liang, responsible for deceased individuals, supports families who have lost a loved one abroad through the repatriation process. When it is possible to hold a funeral, the burial place naturally becomes a place for reflection.

But in some circumstances, such as natural disasters or air disasters, it is not possible to find the body. This is what happened to the 21 families of the 54 French victims of Air Algeria flight 5017 which came down on 24 July 2014 south of Gao in Mali. Damien Deluz-Martineau, psychologist at the Crisis and Support Centre, tells us what happens next. “It is at this point that my role took on a special importance. I already worked regularly with the Crisis and Support Centre but I was always attached to the Human Resources Department as an occupational psychologist. However, I was being asked to work with the CDCS more and more frequently and for longer periods each time. After the Air Algeria accident, the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, brought together the families and offered them the opportunity to travel to the place where the accident happened and where a funerary stele would be erected.

The CDCS organised the travel. In the intervening time, the psychologist remained in touch with the families and relayed back to the rest of the teams. “In April 2015, thanks to the precious help of the Ministry of Defence, we were able to take them to Mali. It was a hard-to-reach crash zone so logistics were essential. It was necessary to take an initial flight in a French State aircraft from Paris to Ouagadougou followed by a second flight by army Transall from Ouagadougou to Gao and then a third flight by military helicopter to the site of the commemorative stele. Nearly 250 people had to make the journey.

It was a tough journey for the families. But it enabled them to visit the crash site, to come together and start their grieving process. “When people die a long way away, the brain needs “proof” for it to face up to reality” explained Damien Deluz-Martineau. “By giving the families a place where they could come together, we enabled them to accept the impossible and to grieve for their loved ones.