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Plane Crash Investigators Describe the Horrors of Digging Through Wreckage

Going to crash sites, talking to grieving families, and listening to black box recordings takes an emotional toll.

by Louise McLoughlin
05 July 2019, 11:03am

Illustration by Warren Heller

Occupational Hazard is a series about how different jobs affect workers' mental health.

Air-crash investigators Larry Vance and Anthony Brickhouse have details from certain jobs embedded in their memories. They rattle off exact dates, locations, and flight numbers effortlessly, as though they just came off that particular plane crash investigation.

For Brickhouse, it’s his first-ever investigation from June 1998. “It was one of those high-velocity crashes where the bodies just get obliterated, unfortunately,” he said. “So at the crash site there wasn’t really anything that looks like a person. The bodies literally just came apart.”

Both victims were pilots: a wife and husband. He recalls finding her purse, his wallet, and their driver's licenses—reminders of the very real people who lost their lives in the mangled metal shell that lay before him. He began to think about the victims’ families, and their friends. The thoughts kept him awake for days.

But he also remembers working the third-deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history—another job very early on in his career. TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff in 1996, killing all 230 people on board.

“Everyone knows what a 747 looks like,” Brickhouse said. “And that aircraft had been decimated into millions of small pieces. Yet there was still liquid hand soap in a bottle on the sink. And you could tell that fire or heat had impacted it, because the bottle was kinda melted. But there was still soap in there…And just to think, a soap container made it through that accident where everybody on board passed away. Here we are in 2019, and I still remember it.”

Vance’s “big one” is Swiss Air Flight 111 in 1998. The plane slammed into the ocean off Nova Scotia. “It stands out because of the enormity of it. All the fatalities.” He was put in the position of dealing with all the families from very early on, many of whom clung to hope that their relatives could have survived. All 229 passengers and crew died.

Burning fabric, burning flesh. The smell catches in your throat, and stays in your mind long after you’ve left the scene.

At the site of a catastrophic plane crash, there is no escaping the smell. Human remains, blood. Fuel, hot metal, melting plastic. Burning fabric, burning flesh. The smell catches in your throat, and stays in your mind long after you’ve left the scene.

For air crash investigators, that is the smell of a new job.

Just like cops who turn up at your house at 2 in the morning, you don't want to find yourself face to face with a plane crash investigator. If you do, either you’ve survived a crash, or someone you know hasn’t. It’s their job to interview survivors, and to speak with bereaved relatives—relatives who’d been waiting for a family member to arrive, only to learn they’ll never see them again.

“You have to find a way not to absorb that into your own mental state,” said Vance, an air crash investigation consultant and a former investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. “That can be traumatic. [There’s] a lot of love, and grief, and needing fast answers. Which, a lot of times, are not there.”

Vance has spent more than 50 years working in the aviation industry, including as a pilot and a flight instructor. Depending on the crash and the team brought in, he’ll often take a case from the beginning to the very end; going from crash site to data analysis to listening to black box recordings to the vital final report. These investigations can take anywhere from days to years.

When crash investigators arrive at a site, they often get there just after first responders. If the situation calls for it, they help move bodies and recover victims' personal possessions.

“Sometimes by the time we get there all the human remains are gone. A lot of times they’re not,” Vance said, adding that it’s not something everyone can cope with. “It’s not even your responsibility to do it. It’s just sometimes it’s the only practical way to do it.”

This stage of the investigation also poses health risks to all those on site. As National Geographic points out, dangers include “hazardous cargo, flammable or toxic materials, and vapors, sharp or heavy objects, pressurized equipment, and even disease” spread through bloodborne pathogens including HIV and hepatitis B and C.

But in many ways, the major impact is emotional. “We’re not machines. [The gore and death] bothers you, it affects you,” said Brickhouse, an air crash investigator and director of the Aerospace Forensic Lab at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

What can affect people in these jobs is the ongoing emotional toll, said Vivien Lee, a Toronto-based psychologist who has experience working with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and trauma-related psychological issues that can develop in military veterans and first responders.

“[Investigators] may not be distressed by a particular gruesome incident,” Lee explained. “It may be the relatively less dramatic ones that wear down resilience over time.”

But mental health assistance is often lacking within the industry. While there is no comprehensive research on the psychological effects of being an air crash investigator, anecdotal evidence suggests that investigators—like first responders—can suffer from negative emotional effects, including recurring thoughts and PTSD.

“I said: ‘Your loved ones certainly would have known something was wrong. The airplane started to do some pretty wild maneuvers, but only really near the end. It would have been in total darkness. And then they would have died instantly.’”

“What can happen over time is this feeling of helplessness,” Lee said. “When you’re dealing with family members who are desperate for answers and you can’t provide the answers, you can’t provide that comfort...that can be very, very difficult for many people.”

“One emotion with bereavement is anger,” Brickhouse reflected. “And they’re looking to you to figure out what happened to their loved ones.” Depending on the size of the crash, that anger can come alongside a slew of international media attention.

Vance has dealt with relatives who try to convince him where he should place the blame for an incident. But more often, he said, the questions he faces are perhaps even tougher to answer than what caused the crash. ‘How did my loved one die? What were they feeling, what were they seeing?’ And tougher still: ‘Were they suffering?’

After one major crash, he recalled telling family members what he believed had happened in the plane’s final moments, based on his findings. “I said: ‘[Your loved ones] certainly would have known something was wrong. The airplane started to do some pretty wild maneuvers, but only really near the end. It would have been in total darkness. And then they would have died instantly.’” Vance said all of that puts to rest any thoughts that people were being burned alive, or were aware of the impending crash long before impact.

It’s these conversations, he believes, that have helped him cope with the mental weight of the job. “It’s helpful for the [families], and it’s helpful for someone like me.”

Sometimes his words are less comforting, though. Telling a pilot’s family that their loved one’s mistakes caused the crash is particularly tough, Vance said. “You have to explain that [the person] who just died made these errors which led to their own demise.” And the demise of others.

It’s not hard to imagine the potential for trauma when job requirements include listening to cockpit voice recordings, or “black box” recordings.

Vance has listened to quite a few of these tapes over the years—it’s vital evidence that can make or break a case.

“Hearing the activities in the cockpit, what was being said, the background noises, the noises of impact…You can hear some pretty traumatic stuff there.” He said the undertaking is made all the more distressing by knowing that he's listening to the final minutes of someone's life.

Investigators describe a tunnel-vision focus on the job, starting before they arrive to a site, and continuing throughout the investigation.

Some people in his industry listen to a black box recording once and choose to never do it again, he said. But he admits that many don’t actually struggle with it. He includes himself in that group, although he’s not quite sure why. “I certainly don’t believe myself to be cold-hearted,” he said.

In interviews with people within the industry, the word “compartmentalizing” comes up again and again. Investigators describe a tunnel-vision focus on the job, starting before they arrive to a site, and continuing throughout the investigation.

As Brickhouse puts it, “You’re so zoned in on trying to work out what happened. You’re just laser-focused on what you need to get done. That kind of becomes your mantra…We’re almost conditioned to not really react to the mental stress of an investigation.”

Another theme is that while classroom training aims to prepare investigators-to-be for a real-life crash site, in many ways it doesn’t. Brickhouse said mental preparedness is something that they can’t really train. “We can talk about it, we can lay the foundations for it. But how everybody responds to that is going to be different.”

The only way to know how to investigate an accident is to go to a real site and breathe the air. “We can simulate it as much as possible, but you have to get there. You have to get the visual, you have to get the smell.”

These days, mental health awareness is filtering into many industries, and the world of air crash investigation is no exception. Vance said the attitude toward mental health has evolved a lot since he began in the 80s.

“Years ago, it was looked on as you were a little soft if you couldn’t handle this stuff, you know? Like, ‘why did you get into this business if you can’t handle it?'”

Lee adds to this perspective. “They may be bothered by it, but they don’t think anything of it really, because it’s part of their job, and they’re working in a culture where there’s a strong stigma around being upset by these sorts of things. That kind of stoicism, ‘suck it up’ kind of attitude…So people don’t want to speak up, because they may fear being cast out of the 'family.'”

But, she adds, that sense of community can also be a powerful safety net, and Brickhouse agrees that talking openly about experiences can be beneficial. “One thing that really helps investigators is just connecting with other investigators, just talking to each other and sharing stories. It’s almost like self-medication.”

In recent years, “trauma teams” come around after bigger accidents to identify those who might be susceptible to PTSD. But to Brickhouse, that’s too little too late. “I’m all about being proactive, and trying to address things before they become a major problem,” he said. “Once a year we do training in the U.S. to freshen our memories on bloodborne pathogens. It takes an hour. Why can’t we have a one-hour mental conditioning session?”

But there’s still resistance. Vance said some of the old timers he’s worked with want nothing to do with the briefings for PTSD, or mental health. “People think that by even getting into that you’re opening yourself up to things you haven’t had to deal with.” He said some investigators are more stressed by people asking why they aren’t upset by what they see than they are by the pressures of the job itself.

The knowledge that they’re doing an essential job can make the tougher aspects of the work a little easier. “The end result of your work is that you try to make the world a safer place, so that this doesn’t happen to somebody else,” Vance said.

“And then,” he adds, “you hope that nothing will come back from that to haunt you.”