News of missing MH370 brought back painful memories for former airline caregiver

The news of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight "sickened" him and brought back painful memories.

Retiree Nelson Sin, 67, was a former "buddy" to the family of victims of the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Flight SQ006 and SilkAir Flight MI 185 crashes. The aftermath of the crashes, which happened in 2000 and 1997 respectively, still haunt him today.

Most airlines have a ready team of staff who volunteer as caregivers and have been trained to provide emotional support to family members in a crisis.

In a statement at 1pm on Wednesday, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) said that they have deployed teams of caregivers consisting of trained MAS staff and volunteers from non-governmental organisations Mercy Malaysia and Tzu Chi Foundation.

These caregivers are stationed at five locations in Beijing, China, and four places in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

After the SilkAir crash, Mr Sin, who was a logistics executive for SIA, was in charge of taking care of the needs of a family of 20 members in Palembang, in Sumatra, Indonesia.

In 2000, he was in Taipei, Taiwan, for three weeks, representing the airline. He visited hospitals with crash victims.

Mr Sin said that he understood the challenges faced by MAS staff members who have to deal with anguished family members.

As a caregiver, he had to arrange for flights, hotels, meals and clothes for them, on top of providing emotional support.

Like some of his colleagues, he had volunteered to be a caregiver before the incident, and was subsequently trained to help counsel families in distress.

Mr Sin said: "I provided a listening ear and the assurance that we will help them in any way that they want." He also had to put up with all kinds of demands.

"A Taiwanese couple had even asked for the airline to pay for their condominium.

"Another family member was a Taoist, but he asked for prayers from every religion," he recalled.

Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane

TAKE IT IN STRIDE

A former staff of a major airline who was in charge of a group of volunteer caregivers, said: "It is always difficult to be the bearer of bad news.

"The family members will scold you, shout at you, accuse you, but you'll have to take it all in your stride."

The woman, who declined to be named, added that MAS staff members are having a harder time now, especially in the age of social media.

"The relatives will use this information, which could be speculation, to bombard and confront the staff," she said.

It was reported that water bottles were thrown at four MAS employees in Beijing when relatives vented their anger over a lack of information.

But while speed in disseminating information is important, accuracy is even more important, said Mr Rick Clements, who was head of communications for SIA for 13 years and the chief spokesman for both the SIA and SilkAir incidents. (See report above.)

"The airline has to be absolutely sure because the wrong information could cause alarm and unnecessary distress for family members," he explained.

Mr Clements now heads a public relations firm specialising in crisis communications and has conducted crisis management training for airlines and helped to write their manuals.

He said an airline's main responsibility in a crash is the welfare of survivors and their families, and volunteer caregivers play a key role.

Sometimes, it takes a psychological toll on them.

Mr Sin, who left the airline more than 10 years ago, had to go through counselling after both incidents. The sight of the victims and his colleagues in hospital in Taipei still traumatises him.

linheng@sph.com.sg

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Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane