1. Archive

Pasco doctor counseled traumatized USAir workers

The calls started soon after USAir Flight 427 slammed into a ravine near Pittsburgh last month, killing 132 passengers and crew.

Most were unpleasant and unwelcome, bearing hurtful remarks that only compounded the tragedy:

Can you guarantee my plane won't crash?

Why can't I fly for less if your planes can't stay in the air?

I lost a loved one on that flight; I'm going to kill you.

You people are murderers.

"Many of the phone calls they were getting from the public were, to say the least, offensive," said Dr. Robert Andolina, a Land O'Lakes psychologist called upon by USAir to help counsel about 300 employees in the aftermath.

Andolina, president and chief executive officer of the Laurel Center for Psychology and Behavioral Medicine in Land O'Lakes, was hired along with several other mental health experts through USAir's employee assistance program because he had crisis management experience.

During the Persian Gulf War three years ago, he counseled relatives of soldiers serving in Desert Storm. The Laurel Center handles crisis intervention for families. USAir officials also knew about Andolina because he had once worked in the Pittsburgh area.

A few days after the Boeing 737 crashed, Andolina flew from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Dayton, Ohio, aboard a USAir jet.

In Dayton, he met with workers in the airline's reservation center who had been bombarded with harassing phone calls and whose children had been harassed at school by others because their parents worked for USAir.

"They were feeling responsible, helpless, crying," Andolina recalled. "People talked a lot about stress. They were having bad dreams. They couldn't sleep. They were agitated. These people had become the receptacles for a lot of negative reaction."

What if I put someone on that flight, some workers wondered, as if confirming a reservation equaled pulling a trigger.

"I told them that I'm a doctor. I travel a lot. Now, no one's ever called me and said, "Dr. Andolina, it's time to go to South Carolina,'

" he said. "I make a choice, don't I? And when I make that choice, I call them and they facilitate that choice. They help me get from Point A to Point B."

Andrea Butler, USAir spokeswoman, said counseling from Andolina and others appears to have helped the company's employees:

"It doesn't matter if it's the front-line reservation clerk or a gate agent who will have a mental picture of those passengers for quite some time.

"An airline is a lot like a family. With any family tragedy, you can let it tear you apart or use it to bring everyone together. Of course, we've done the latter."