Lessons from Disaster At Sea

What can disaster psychology teach us in light of the Costa Concordia disaster?

Posted Jan 23, 2012

The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster: Lessons from the first 6 years.

Since the capsize of the Costa Concordia last week and the news that up to 32 people have lost their lives some commentators have mentioned similarities with the Titanic.

To understand the situation it is useful to look for points of similarity to previous incidents.

For policy makers, clinical psychologists and other helping professionals there is now a need to know what the effects are and how long they may last, what factors might be psychologically helpful or harmful, and how to provide assistance.

There is much to be learned from the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. This was a roll-on-roll-off ferry that capsized on March 6, 1987, when it was performing turning maneuvers as it left the harbour in Zeebrugge, Belgium. On board the ferry were nearly 500 passengers and 80 crew, with 1,100 tons of haulage. The ship capsized without warning and rolled over in 45 seconds. There was no time to sound alarms and people, furniture, cars and lorries were thrown to the port side, many into ice-cold water, as the windows and portholes gave way to the pressure of the sea coming in. The electricity failed and in the total darkness people screamed and shouted in pain and fear. Many were seriously injured and in the chaos 193 passengers and crew lost their lives.

The Herald Research Team at the Institute of Psychiatry in London carried out a series of studies over the subsequent six years with survivors into their psychological functioning and what factors seemed helpful in recovery. The results of the studies were described in a paper by Dalgleish, Joseph and Yule (2000). In summary:

  • There were significant levels of clinical distress in the first years. PTSD symptoms were commonly reported.
  • Symptoms decreased over time - although a minority remained highly distressed at six years.
  • Feelings of guilt about surviving or about what one did or did not do to survive were common and related to greater overall distress.
  • Use of substances such as tobacco, alcohol, sleeping tablets increased - probably as ways of coping with feelings of distress.
  • Continued levels of posttraumatic stress after several months were predictive of later problems of depression and anxiety.
  • Higher levels of crisis support were related to lower distress.
  • Negative attitudes towards emotional expression were found to be related to greater distress - possibly because this reduced support seeking.
  • Guilt and shame provoking thoughts for events during the disaster were related to poorer functioning.

This research over six years with survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster suggested that intervening early with respect to the above factors is likely to help mitigate against longer term distress.

Much was learned through the experiences of the survivors of the Herald about how people cope in the aftermath of disaster. The lessons learned back then may be a useful guide to those asking similar questions today about what to look out for and what may be helpful.

To find out more about my work: http://www.profstephenjoseph.com

Dalgleish, T., Joseph, S., & Yule, W. (2000). The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster: Lessons from the first 6 years. Behavior Modification, 24, 673-699.

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