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American Airlines Praises DoD Family Assistance Center

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2001 – Tommy McFall was apprehensive when he walked into DoD's Family (Casualty) Assistance Center in Arlington, Va., two days after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Tommy McFall and Karleen Hagan of American Airlines said they were “overwhelmed” by the way DoD included families of Flight 77 passengers in its military family assistance program. Terrorists hijacked the flight and crashed it into the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001, killing everyone on board and another 125 on the ground. Photo by Rudi Williams.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

He watched intently as a beehive of people calmly and compassionately helped families, loved ones and friends of terrorist victims who were killed or still unaccounted for in the Pentagon rubble. There were psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, chaplains, counselors, military and civilian personnel specialists, finance representatives, escorts and a host of others helping any way they could.

McFall, director of accident investigations and safety reviews for American Airlines, thought to himself, "They're not going to treat airline passengers' families as well as they're treating Pentagon people's families." But he was wrong.

"When I walked into the command post on Sept. 13, the third morning after the event, a woman named Meg Falk and her assistant, Mark Ward, met me and immediately expressed their gratitude and relief that somebody from American was here," said McFall, who was also in charge of the company's on-site CARE Team. CARE stands for "customer assistance and relief effort."

Falk is director of the DoD Office of Family Policy and Ward is DoD's casualty and mortuary affairs manager. The center was in the Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City, Arlington's high-rise business area a few blocks from the Pentagon.

"So from the first moment they were trying to figure out how we could work together and what American could do for them and what they could do for American," said McFall, who works out of American headquarters at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. "They literally pulled me into this organization."

He said he was overwhelmed by DoD's willingness to include the airline's people into the military family assistance program. "We were just amazed at the logistics of the facilities and the caring nature of the people who had gone through hell a couple of days before," he said.

"They were visibly shaken, just as our people were shaken by the loss of our airplane," he said. "They were assisting their co-workers and their families. But still, with all that grief and difficulty, they still insisted on making time to include the American Airlines families. It was an incredible experience."

Three days of inclusive treatment made McFall realize his company was trying to do the same things, but in two places. DoD's operation, in a hotel near the Pentagon, had more assets than the airline's center at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. DoD's center was also closer to the Pentagon crash site and had emergency assistance organizations on hand, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Airport CARE Team leader Karleen M. Hagan wound down her center and moved to DoD's in Arlington. "The CARE Team was set up to help victims' families through the initial stages of an event, to satisfy any personal needs they may have," she explained. "Usually, they need to travel to wherever the accident occurred. They may also have incidental expenses we can help them with."

DoD and airline centers typically provide the same services, McFall said. Families and friends of the airline passengers, however, were going to the DoD center and bringing questions DoD had no way to handle, he added. That's why DoD asked for a company presence and explained the warm welcome he received, he said.

DoD provided the nucleus of support that American Airlines couldn't. "We're trained to deal with accidents, not terrorist acts," McFall noted. "DoD is more capable of dealing with this sort of event. They knew what agencies to contact for assistance and had booths set up so people could walk around and quickly get information."

Defense Department family members were truly "United in Memory" Oct. 11 as they remembered friends and co-workers lost in the attack on the Pentagon one month before. DoD also invited families of the airline passengers to the special memorial service.

"That was totally above and beyond," McFall said. "They didn't have to do anything, yet they chose to assign 47 escorts to accompany the Flight 77 people."

"DoD made everything available to our families that was available to DoD people, unless it was military-related," Hagan said. "We're eternally grateful that they embraced our families. They never made us feel like it was Flight 77 and the DoD. It was all that everyone was unified, and everyone was a victim, and everyone was loved."

The original DoD assistance center shut down Oct. 12. Phase II, to tie up loose ends, began down a few blocks down the street in Room 7N06 of the Polk Building at 2521 Jefferson Davis Highway. Officials are preparing for the start of Phase III on Nov. 2, when all family assistance matters revert to the services.

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