Angels of Mercy

Published December 20, 1994

It was Halloween. Children were already at the door collecting candy. Then we heard the news that American Eagle flight 4184 had just plowed into a Northern Indiana cornfield. My wife, Tina, who is a Red Cross disaster volunteer, was quickly dispatched to O’Hare to comfort the families and friends of the victims.

The next day volunteers went to the air accident site in Newton County, Indiana. The volunteers were at the temporary morgue near the crash scene providing an information link for the families of the passengers and crew of flight 4184. Volunteers also helped with food service for the safety inspectors and emergency workers in the area.

Tina is a nurse who volunteers her time with the American Red Cross to be available for disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and air crashes. She worked on the Los Angeles earthquake, Hurricane Iniki, the Plainfield tornado, the September crash of a U.S. Air flight that originated in Chicago, and the American Airlines DC-10 that lost an engine on take-off from O’Hare in 1979. She also has been involved with many of the 2,000 disasters (mainly house fires) that occur each year in the Chicago area.

Most often, Red Cross volunteers like Tina care for victims by distributing food, arranging shelter, providing transportation, and replacing medical items like prescriptions, eyeglasses, dentures, and prostheses. But air crashes are different. Often, very little can be done to help those who were on board the crashed aircraft. So the volunteers shift their focus to the families and friends of the passengers and crew, including coworkers at the airline. That is what Tina and other Red Cross volunteers were doing Halloween night.

But the work does not stop there. When the morgue opened in Newton County, the Red Cross volunteers became an information source for the families of crash victims. That is an emotionally wrenching task, as is the job of an emergency worker at the accident scene who must witness the full extent of the tragedy, knowing full well that he or she is powerless to do anything to save the victims. The Red Cross takes care of the emergency workers too, by feeding them when they are on duty, and afterwards by organizing group therapy or “bull sessions” to help them work through the experience and regain their ability to handle future disasters.

What is remarkable is that these angels of mercy devote a great deal of their own time, energy, and effort getting trained and making themselves available on very short notice. The supplies they distribute are paid for with private donations, not tax revenues from the government. Moreover, these consummate professionals perform their very vital functions without pay. Indeed, those who volunteer their time are typically financial contributors to the Red Cross as well.

While the volunteers do not get paid, they do get rewarded. They have the exhilarating experience of being an immediate and direct comfort to people in crisis. It is an intoxicating experience without a hangover.

The next time you see Red Cross volunteers on their way to help disaster victims, give them your good wishes. Or better yet, become a volunteer yourself. The Red Cross can always use a few more angels of mercy.

James Johnston is a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.