‘Am I going to get killed?’ When the rescuers needed rescuing

Research shows civilians who help at mass-casualty accidents struggle afterwards, but don’t get the support given to official first responders

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When a twin-engined plane slammed into a Richmond road in front of Simon Pearce’s car, he ran to the burning wreckage to pull badly injured passenger Carolyn Cross to safety — and, as a pilot, faced his “biggest fear” while watching the cockpit being consumed by flames.

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Another motorist who stopped to help, Jeremy Kerr, took deep breaths before entering the smoke-filled fuselage, and is still haunted by the memory of a bystander screaming: “Get away from the plane, it’s going to blow!” as he plunged inside to drag people out.

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The heat of the fire was so intense when English teacher John Redmond rushed to try to reach the two pilots, who were trapped behind a wall of flames, that it melted the tip of his necktie.

These men remain saddened they couldn’t free the pilots, who were removed by firefighters and died in hospital. They are proud, though, of the lives they did save on Oct. 27, 2011, when a Beechcraft King Air 100 with nine people on board crashed less than a kilometre from Vancouver airport’s southernmost runway.

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Since the crash, there have been repeated calls to provide better psychological assistance to civilians who help at emergencies. Those involved in the plane rescue received differing amounts and types of support, which made the healing journey far more complicated for some.

“I was down and out for two days. I was completely lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” said Pearce, who kept wondering about the woman he pulled from the plane.

“I have no idea who this person is. I don’t know if she made it, if she survived … I started crying when I thought about the potential of having paralyzed whoever it was that I dragged out.”

Pearce could not climb back into his pilot seat until after he met Cross in the hospital to see that she was OK. The reunion, arranged through unofficial channels, was also a huge benefit to Cross, who had been desperately trying to find her rescuers to thank them.

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“That started my healing, otherwise I was really stuck in a loop,” she said.

From left, Kim and Simon Pearce, Carolyn Cross and Jeremy Kerr, at the scene of a 2011 airplane crash.
From left, Kim and Simon Pearce, Carolyn Cross and Jeremy Kerr, at the scene of a 2011 airplane crash. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

Little organized support is offered to volunteers at mass-casualty accidents in B.C., and that is something that trauma expert Laurie Pearce has tried for years to change.

Civilian rescuers should receive the same therapeutic or debriefing options given to victims and witnesses involved in crimes, or to first responders and members of volunteer rescue teams, she said.

“When it is not a crime, such as a bus crash, there is no psychological support for those impacted by the event. The consequences of stopping to help someone can be devastating,” said Laurie Pearce, an associate professor in the disaster and emergency management masters program at Royal Roads University. (She is not related to Simon Pearce.)

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She contacted Postmedia about her research after reading a story detailing how passengers and motorists helped people who were injured during a fatal Christmas Eve bus rollover near Merritt.

“The research would indicate that some of those people are going to be impacted for the rest of their lives from that (bus) incident,” added Pearce, who also teaches critical incident stress management courses at the Justice Institute of B.C.

In addition to more post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, resources for civilian rescuers, she said it is vital for them to be able to connect afterwards with each other, as well as with any victims and first responders who are willing to meet them. This would allow them to learn how the injured are healing or merely to decipher what happened at the scene.

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However, privacy laws make arranging these meetings difficult.

“There is a huge need for rescuers and survivors to be reunited for the purposes of saying thank you. And yet, enabling that to occur is hugely problematic,” she said. “There is no easy way to do this, given privacy legislation.”

For one small example of this, Postmedia interviewed a motorist whose family helped at the Dec. 24 bus accident. He was worried about what happened to some personal items he retrieved from a snowy ditch and gave to police when the owners couldn’t be found. The newspaper was able to allay some of the Good Samaritan’s concerns after interviewing the owner of one of those items, a cellphone, who was grateful it was eventually returned.

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That simple piece of information can be nearly impossible for civilians to find out because there is no system that allows those involved in these events to learn the names of others who were also there.

Jeremy Kerr at the Vancouver airport’s south terminal.
Jeremy Kerr at the Vancouver airport’s south terminal. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

While Simon Pearce struggled after the plane crash due to a lack of information and proper support, his fellow rescuer, Kerr, fared a little better. That’s because Kerr was able to find out quickly, quite by coincidence, that the passengers they saved were doing well in hospital. Fortuitously, he was also able to speak about the crash with some firefighters who had been there.

Months later, when he met with his fellow civilian rescuers for the first time, Kerr realized some took longer to heal because they hadn’t had the same options he did. “It took me a while to get over it (the crash). But I was on a different path that was really fortunate with unique opportunities. Then I thought, ‘S-t, you guys need this too.’”

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Through a $3.6-million research project at the Justice Institute, which included consulting with government employees and first responders, Laurie Pearce proposed a solution to these challenges in 2015. But she is still waiting for officials to take action.

In Part 1 of this story, we revisit the fatal 2011 plane crash, the actions taken by rescuers and how the fatal event affected them. On Tuesday, in Part 2, we will learn what help these rescuers did or did not receive, how that affected them in the long term, and the changes they believe must be made to help similar rescuers in the future.

John Redmond stopped his blue car beside the plane when he ran to help. Photo courtesy of John Redmond.
John Redmond stopped his blue car beside the plane when he ran to help. Photo courtesy of John Redmond. Photo by John Redmond /Special to PNG

Thunderbird Flight 204

Carolyn Cross was one of seven passengers on Thunderbird Flight 204, which took off from YVR’s south terminal bound for Kelowna at 3:41 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2011. The CEO of a Vancouver life sciences company, she was headed to a conference.

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About 15 minutes into the flight, the pilot announced there was an oil leak and they were returning to Vancouver. Nervous, Cross typed out text and email messages to her three kids, aged 9, 11 and 15, telling them that she loved them.

They were approaching the runway when the plane suddenly banked left, then plummeted “like a roller-coaster ride.” It was filled with the screams of terrified passengers.

“I close my eyes and I’m hoping my messages got out. The next thing I know, I wake up and I am in a plane that’s on fire,” said Cross, weeping quietly as she spoke.

She tried to move, but did not have the strength.

“I suddenly got incredible anxiety and despair, and the realization: I’m going to burn to death because there were flames right beside me. And then, just as I was giving up, I feel people lifting me out. It really was the hands of God.”

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Those hands actually belonged to Simon Pearce, who had just left the airport when the plane smashed into No. 2 Road at Gilbert Road, at 4:11 p.m. He told his wife Kim to phone 911 and ran toward the inferno.

“I remember stopping, looking around, going, ‘OK, where am I going to get killed here? Where am I going to get hurt? Where is it dangerous? Fire here. Fire here. Fire over there,’” said Simon Pearce, who has Coast Guard Auxiliary training.

He saw the passenger door open from the inside and two men stumble out. Then Cross, whose seat was ripped away from the plane in the force of the impact, fell onto the door. She lay there, motionless.

As he recounts the story, Simon Pearce pauses to cry. The memory is still raw more than a decade later.

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He stepped into the burning plane, grabbed Cross under her arms and dragged her onto the street.

She appeared to be in shock and told him: “I was texting my kids, telling them I love them, and I was never going to see them again.”

Lying on the road, Cross watched Simon Pearce and others run towards the burning aircraft. There was nothing, she said through tears, “more heroic or more selfless than watching these particular people just go into that plane to help other people that they didn’t know.”

One of those rescuers, Jeremy Kerr, slid on leaking jet fuel as he and another motorist raced towards the fiery debris. He can remember thinking, “We have no idea what we’re doing.”

He put his arm around a man with a bloody face who emerged from the plane, helping him across the road to safety. The remaining people in the fuselage could not get out on their own.

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“Me and a few other guys were taking turns going in and grabbing passengers, pulling them out,” Kerr said. “I can see the flames in the cockpit. I can remember it was really smoky. It was hot in there. It was incredibly uncomfortable.”

John Redmond was driving over the Dinsmore Bridge when he saw the plane crash.
John Redmond was driving over the Dinsmore Bridge when he saw the plane crash. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann /Vancouver Sun

Alongside Kerr was John Redmond, armed with his car’s steering wheel lock, which he used to pry dislodged seats out of the way. At the front of the plane was a couple who had been thrown from their seats, and someone yelled for them to get out.

“Not without my wife,” answered the husband, who struggled to stand. Redmond dragged the woman, who was unconscious, down the narrow aisle, while others pulled the man out.

“We knew that the pilots were still there and we went back in to try to get them and we couldn’t. The fire had broken through the fuselage. And this smoke was thick, really thick,” recalled Redmond.

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“The heat was too intense.”

Although haunted by not being able to reach those pilots, Redmond and Kerr backed off when they heard the sirens of approaching fire trucks. Firefighters extinguished the blaze and extricated the pilots from the charred wreckage.

“Seared into my mind to this day, I got to watch both pilots being pulled out, both badly burnt,” said an emotional Simon Pearce. “This is my biggest fear for flying.”

They were taken to hospital, but pilot Luc Fortin died within hours and co-pilot Matt Robic died three weeks later. All seven passengers, though, survived.

Cross, who suffered broken bones, as well as head and serious knee injuries, was comforted at the scene by Simon Pearce’s wife, Kim. And she continued a death-grip-hold on the cellphone she’d been using to message her kids.

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“I saw that she had dialed someone,” Kim Pearce recalled. She took the phone and spoke with a woman who was looking after Cross’s children, and explained there had been an accident but that Cross was alive.

Carolyn Cross in a knee brace more than two months after the crash.
Carolyn Cross in a knee brace more than two months after the crash. Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost /PROVINCE

Once first responders took over, there was nothing more for the civilian rescuers to do. As he was driving away, Kerr phoned his best friend in Ontario, to tell him about the rescue. The friend, who is a firefighter, insisted that Kerr ask the fire department if he could attend a debriefing session.

At first, Kerr dismissed the suggestion as unnecessary, but his friend was emphatic that he had to do this for his psychological well-being. That evening, he texted a firefighter he knew to make the arrangements.

When Simon and Kim Pearce arrived that night in Victoria, where his parents were looking after their young son, they “basically collapsed.” He is a pilot and she is an aerial surveillance officer, so they had access to counselling through their employer, but he fell into a “haze” caused by so many unanswered questions.

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“The first couple of days was just trying to figure out what happened. Your brain is trying to make sense of everything that you saw, were involved with, and couldn’t put it together. There wasn’t enough information,” he said.

At the same time, from her bed in Vancouver General Hospital, Cross felt overwhelming gratitude that she had survived and was determined to find out who rescued her. But no one was able to tell her.

“I was trying very hard to actually meet them to thank them,” she said, but kept hitting a privacy wall.

As a result, a frustrated Cross couldn’t reach out to Simon Pearce, who continued to “spiral downward.”

Trauma expert Laurie Pearce, an instructor at Royal Roads and the Justice Institute of B.C. Courtesy: Laurie Pearce
Trauma expert Laurie Pearce, an instructor at Royal Roads and the Justice Institute of B.C. Courtesy: Laurie Pearce jpg

Post traumatic stress disorder is a worry for police officers, firefighters and paramedics who respond, but they have training beforehand and access to specialized counselling and debriefing after a serious event, Laurie Pearce said.

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Everyday citizens who stop at a bus accident or a plane crash, though, largely have to rely on whatever therapy they can afford or access through insurance or benefit plans. And they would typically have no one to speak with who had also been at the scene, she added.

“There are people who have responded to disasters wanting to help and they are literally incapacitated for the rest of their lives, and don’t have the funds or support to move forward,” said Laurie Pearce, who also does disaster and trauma training for the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

She chaired the Justice Institute’s simulation training and exercise collaboratory research project, funded with $3.6 million from Defence Research and Development Canada, which considered the psychosocial effects of responding to disasters.

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One element of the project was the creation of psychological resources to be offered immediately after a mass-casualty event to try to prevent PTSD. This includes a formal mechanism for everyone involved — the injured, first responders, civilian rescuers and witnesses — to be able to connect later “to receive additional information, emotional support, and/or to express gratitude.”

There are, of course, informal ways that people can track each other down after a major accident, but Pearce brought together government officials and first responder agencies to ask how this could be made more official. There was a willingness among these experts to pursue the idea as long as it didn’t violate confidentiality laws that protect the identities of people who don’t want to participate.

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Potential solutions were proposed and, when federal funding for the research ended in 2015, Laurie Pearce continued on her own to push for these changes. But she has had no success finding a government agency to take this on.

“There was lots of support, just no one wanting to pick up on it.”

Tuesday in Part 2: How the rescuers sought help in the days and weeks after the crash, how Cross fought for better support for them, and how the government responds to Laurie Pearce’s proposals for change.


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