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article imageExperts Ask: How Can We Help People Cope With Tragedy?

By Helmut Reuter     Jun 8, 2001 in Technology
ROSTOK (dpa) - There are places which bury themselves deeply in the memory and which for many people remain a source of immeasurable suffering for all their lives.
Place-names like Eschede (high-speed German rail crash) or Kaprun (mountain tunnel inferno) or Ramstein (air show disaster) are among them, standing for human tragedy and violently shaking peoples' belief in perfect technology.
And the list goes on, perhaps the most spectacular being last year's fiery crash of a supersonic Concorde jet in Paris.
All are synonymous for catastrophes in which many people died. Remaining behind were mourning spouses, parents and orphans.
How do people cope with the unfathomable? Who are responsible? Can money help?
These and other questions came up repeatedly at a recent conference in the northern German city of Rostock, with insurance company officials, psychologists and victims trying to find some answers.
"I always wanted to be a contact partner," said Otto-Ernst Krasney, talking about the position he got in 1998 as ombudsman at the German federal railways Deutsche Bahn. Then came June 3, 1998 - and the high-speed ICE train disaster at Eschede, with 101 dead and more than 100 injured in a scene of grisly horror.
Just how helpless and devoid of hope the people were who lost loved ones in that accident became quickly clear to Krasney. He did what he could - helped a woman who had lost her husband to gain access to a joint bank account, got a girl whose mother was in a coma enrolled in school.
He found apartments for others, helped people pay their bills and aided in the search for lost luggage.
Yet Deutsche Bahn came away looking bad because of what was seen as a lack of sensitivity in dealing with the victims' relatives. Letters written in crisp, bureaucratic style hurt peoples' feelings.
"In the first few days letters went out, and at the top of the paper was the stamped slogan 'the Bahn is coming', along with a picture of an ICE train," Krasney said, admitting that the mistake was his.
The case was similar at the Gletscherbahn Kaprun AG company, operator of the mountain train tunnel inferno at the ski resort in Kaprun, Austria, last November, killing 155 people. A letter of condolence sent to grieving families bore a joyous holiday logo.
"Nobody was thinking," said Erik Eybl of the insurance company Generali Versicherung which was in charge of the "damage control" in the wake of the tunnel disaster.
Describing his own work, Eybl calls it "expressing horror in numerical terms".
For many people, numbers are an anchor which holds them firm when the unthinkable happens. But sober numbers can weigh heavily and paralyse as well. In the Kaprun tunnel the dead included 92 Austrians, 37 Germans, 10 Japanese, eight Americans, four Slovenians, two Dutch, one Czech and one British national.
Among these, there were 47 married couples, along with 40 children from 31 families. Thirteen children became fully-orphaned.
Eybl said that when the news broke last November 10 about the fire in the Kaprun mountain tunnel, officials quickly realised one thing: "It was the biggest peacetime calamity since a fire in (Vienna's) Ring Theatre in 1881, when 386 people died."
At the Generali insurance company, one crisis meeting followed the other. Dealing with the media for a while paralysed the work of the entire management board. "Everybody was under enormous pressure," Eyble said.
In the meantime, 42 law firms in four countries are now at work in suing for claims made by victims. The amount of insurance money available for the claims is only around 20 million dollars.
Sybille Jatzko, a therapist, realises that "money can never replace a human". But all the same, she is fighting vehemently for damage claims filed by victims of the air show crash at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany in 1988.
For 12 years she and her husband have been treating 250 traumatised victims or their survivors.
"What these people have suffered in the 12 years is worthy of compensation," she argues, speaking of what she calls a "spiritual paralysis" which lawmakers should finally recognise.
The headlines are grabbed for weeks and months at a time by such large-scale disasters, in contrast to the countless daily tragedies which occur in peoples' lives out on the highways, in their homes or out swimming in a lake.
German railways ombudsman Krasney reported the case of a woman who called him up and expressed understanding for the work he does. But then she had this to say at the end: "You know, last year I lost my husband and both children in an accident out on the highway. Nobody has helped me."
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