Psychosocial support following Sierre coach crash

March 13, 2012. What should have been an uneventful return trip from a skiing vacation ended tragically for a group of schoolchildren and their teachers. On the evening of Tuesday, March 13, a coach carrying children from primary schools in Lommel and Heverlee crashed into a tunnel wall in Sierre, Switzerland, shortly after leaving the ski resort of Saint-Luc. Twenty-eight people were killed and a number of others injured.

The Sierre tragedy sent shock waves through Switzerland and Belgium. As soon as reports of the accident came in, a large-scale assistance effort was mounted in which the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders Social Intervention Service (SIS) played a prominent role.

Straight into action

Around 4 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, March 14, the Dispatching Service received an alarm. The crisis plan was launched straight away. SIS immediately sent volunteers to the four schools affected to provide support to parents, relatives and staff. There was also a second coach carrying schoolchildren from Beersel and Haasrode, which was safely en route back to Belgium. Before the parents had even arrived, SIS personnel were present at the schools ready to offer psychosocial support.

Support at the scene

Two SIS volunteers accompanied the parents and relatives to Switzerland. They joined the other support workers at the military airport in Melsbroek. After a short briefing to relatives, the flight departed and the tasks were divided up.

On the scene, SIS offered support with the ante-mortem discussions with relatives. Together with DVI (Disaster Victim Identification), they spoke at length with the parents of the deceased children to enable identification. The same volunteers accompanied the relatives during the identification and  the reception of the bodies at the funeral home in Sion. At such times, it is important that parents are surrounded by people they trust. Our colleagues were mainly responsible for providing human warmth and support. Upon their return to Belgium, SIS was once again on hand to assist family members and give rescue workers a chance to air their experiences and emotions.

Coming to terms with the tragedy

For several days afterwards, SIS volunteers were active in the two schools affected, providing acute psychosocial support to school staff and relatives. We organized group discussions at the schools with the teachers and children. Our main aim was to identify the specific needs of the group and help everyone come to terms with what had happened.

The injured children and their parents returned home a few days after the relatives of the dead. Upon arrival they were looked after by SIS volunteers, who gave them the necessary information. Belgian Red Cross-Flanders ambulances were also on hand.

Support at key moments after the accident

SIS was also present when clothes and other personal belongings were returned to the victims’ families. During the wake in the funeral chapel in Leuven, volunteers were present in the background to offer the necessary psychosocial support.

In the weeks and months following the accident, SIS provided psychological support on a number of occasions, including at the funeral and memorial services and when relatives viewed the victims’ medical files.

A huge debt of gratitude

The support provided by SIS was spread over various locations both in Belgium and abroad. More than 40 volunteers and professionals spent time not only at the four affected schools but also in Sierre and at the government’s Crisis Center in Brussels. The relentless media attention placed extra demands on our colleagues, but this was more than offset by the enormous gratitude shown by the affected families and teachers.

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