Sharon Bryson, Service to America award finalist: The bearer of bad news — and hopefully comfort

She calls them the words nobody ever wants to hear.

Yes, we know your loved one boarded the aircraft. No, they’re not in any of the local hospitals. We are waiting for word from the medical examiner on a positive identification.

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GS: FEDERAL WORKER SERIES

This series profiles government workers who are finalists for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.

For more than a dozen years, Sharon Bryson waited with shocked and anguished people whose loved ones had fallen victim to a big transportation disaster — usually a major plane crash.

“I’ve been there in the middle of the night with a family member when things have gone wrong,” said Bryson, who spent a decade leading the family assistance program at the National Transportation Safety Board before being promoted last year. “And I’ve seen the look on the faces of people who have paid the price for things that have not been right in the system.”

Her job grew out of what may have been the worst post-airline disaster debacle of all time.

TWA Flight 800 lay in thousands of pieces in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island in 1996. And with it were the bodies of 230 people whose flight to Paris had gone drastically wrong.

The bankrupt airline flew in family members, depositing them in a Ramada hotel near John F. Kennedy International Airport. But after that, they got little information about the crash or the remains they’d come to take home. When politicians got TV time with their status reports on the recovery of bodies, family members who felt left in the dark exploded.

“People were screaming for information,” one family member told Newsweek. “You get five versions of everything.”

Magnified by the glare of the New York media, the angry families caught the attention of people who had just experienced similar frustrations after losing family members in two other big accidents — the crashes of USAir 427 near Pittsburgh and ValuJet 592, which went down in the Everglades.

“I still have the images at all three accidents of the families standing outside telling the media ‘We don’t know anything,’ ” recalled Bryson, 53, who then worked at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The next year she had a new job, in an office where people weren’t sure she’d fit in.

Congress had responded to the distress of families by creating what is now the Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance and squeezing it into the federal agency whose sole role had been to find the cause of transportation disasters.

“She came to an agency of investigators who were somewhat skeptical of providing family assistance,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the NTSB. “She really turned an organization of investigators around, and they’re now very proud of it.”

This year, Bryson is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Award medal in career achievement. The awards, presented annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, will be announced at a dinner Thursday in Washington.

“It was fascinating to me to see how she was able to work in the different worlds,” said Paul Sledzik, who worked under Bryson and then took over TDA when she was promoted to deputy director. “She’s briefing the family members, speaking with them one-on-one to meet their concerns, meeting with the air carriers, making sure that victim identification is moving along smoothly, keeping an eye on the personal-effects process, and keeping the board members and our investigative people informed.”

The potential for chaos after a disaster is enormous, he said.

“She was able to bring a sense of calm and a sense of focus that allows you, working for her, to kind of know what to do next,” he said. “That’s her biggest skill.”

Bryson said it’s all about focusing.

“We have to stay focused on providing them information, mitigating any trauma, being that organization that they can look to for the things they need at that very difficult time for them,” she said.

She came to the NTSB after serving for seven years as family service director of the center in Dover, where military families collect the bodies of personnel who die overseas. Her initial role tapped into her expertise as a mental-health professional, and three years later she became director of the new unit.

The five members of the TDA, like other key NTSB personnel, keep “go-bags” in their offices so they can leave at the first bulletin of a major accident.

Major airlines and some other carriers, including Amtrak, also send family teams to crash sites, but when the TDA arrives, overall coordination falls to its members. They arrange briefings for family members and remain available to them 24 hours a day.

“The first question they want to know is what happened and why,” Bryson said. “Waiting is a really, really difficult thing for family members. What they want is their loved ones to be returned home. We can’t say anybody is deceased until the medical examiner says so.”

NTSB investigations are methodical, painstaking and lengthy. Usually, it is a year or more before a conclusion is reached; in complicated incidents — like TWA 800 — it can take several years. The agency never speculates, and that creates a field day for outside experts who offer best-guess explanations in the immediate aftermath.

“Family may come to us and say, ‘I heard that this [same] airplane was in an accident two months ago,’ or ‘I heard that the airplane was delayed on the tarmac and that might have caused icing,’ ” Bryson said. “If we don’t know the answer to one of those things, we’ll run it down.”

Every incident presents its own dynamics, she said. Responding to an accident involving high school students, for example, will be different from a crash of retirees or a business flight.

While the NTSB investigation continues, the TDA crew remains in contact with families, alerting them to hearings and making arrangements for those who might want to attend. A few families stay in touch long after the NTSB’s work is done.

“I don’t think anybody ever gets closure,” Bryson said. “Most family members will tell you they don’t particularly care for closure in the sense that you’ll put that behind you and move on with the rest of your life. It becomes a part of who they are. Our role is to mitigate that trauma so they can figure out what their new normal will be.”

Bryson commutes four hours round-trip daily from her native Delaware, where her husband, a former state trooper, is Camden’s chief of police.

“We didn’t get married to live separate,” she said. “And I love to live in Delaware and I love to work at the board, and I haven’t figured out a way to get them closer together, so I do the drive.”

She uses the commute to decompress.

“One of the things that’s really important for people who work in this business is to have your own space, to just quiet yourself after dealing with people who, in some cases, have lost everything,” she said. “You try really hard not to take it home with you. It’s about having those boundaries, being able to be empathic and helpful and supportive but maintaining yourself as a person.”

 
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