On Jan. 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged 18,000 feet into the Pacific Ocean, killing all 88 people on board. This was also Sharon Bryson’s first day as head of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) program that assists survivors and family members of those killed in transportation disasters.
Bryson quickly grabbed her ‘go-bag’ and headed to the West Coast to support the distraught families of the victims, a crucial but heart-wrenching task that she has undertaken more than 140 times.
Through all these incidents, Bryson has witnessed the breadth of emotions—from distressed to grief-stricken—and has done everything possible to provide assistance and support.
“It is how I would want my family to be treated if something happened to me,” said Bryson. “The families are at the darkest point in their lives and we are that source of information to help them begin to understand what happened.”
Following serious transportation accidents, Bryson and her staff of five help survivors, families of victims, communities, and airlines or other carriers respond to the disaster. They set up a coordinating center; coordinate victim recovery and identification; facilitate the return of personal effects; and provide as much information as possible about the accident investigation. They also provide access to crisis counseling and clergy; help arrange memorial services; and assist those who are impacted move towards what the NTSB official calls “their new normal.”
“Victims’ families always remember how they were treated and felt after an event,” said Kathryn Turman, director of the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance. “They may not remember the people involved, but they remember whether they had bottled water, Kleenex and childcare. Sharon takes all these things into account.”
One of Bryson’s most meaningful moments followed the 2009 crash of Continental Flight 3407, a commuter plane that crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo, N.Y. and claimed 50 lives. The next year, families of the victims asked Bryson’s team to meet them at the United States Capitol.
“You go from the first night with the trauma and the shock, to family members standing in front of Congress saying, ‘Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you,’” Bryson said. “It was an incredibly moving moment where families talked about how important it was to have a place where they could get what they needed and get answers.”
Prior to 1996, assistance for victims of transportation disasters was haphazard. There was no single agency responsible for taking care of the victims and answering their questions. Following a series of major aviation crashes in the mid-1990s, those who lost loved ones successfully lobbied Congress to improve the delivery of information and services to family members and survivors.
Bryson joined the newly created Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance in 1997 and became its director three years later. In 2010, she was named deputy director of communications for NTSB.
When she took over as director, Bryson effectively developed the assistance program from scratch. This required significant collaboration with the airline industry, Department of Health and Human Services disaster assistance teams, the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and other nonprofits, and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System and DNA Laboratory.
Ken Jenkins, director of emergency services for BMS Global, a firm that specializes in providing assistance at airline crash sites, said Bryson’s operation “runs like clockwork” because she has established a chain of command and leads a cohesive team.
“Sharon is assertive, organized, efficient and even-keeled—everything you want from an onsite lead during a tragedy,” said Jenkins.
In addition to major aviation accidents, Bryson established an assistance program focused on smaller cases investigated by the NTSB that include light aircraft, rail lines, marine, highway and pipeline accidents. She has also worked with the international community, helping foreign governments set up transportation disaster assistance programs.
As a licensed, professional mental health counselor, Bryson began her citizen services work as director of the Family Support Center at Dover Air Force Base from 1991 to 1997. There she managed support services for Air Force personnel and their families, including those who lost their lives in military service.
Bryson said her reward is helping people in need. “Having the privilege of building a program that helps families endure some of the darkest moments of their lives—there’s a real privilege to doing that,” said Bryson.
At the same time, Bryson said she would prefer if the job were not necessary.
“Every time I grabbed my go bag and took off to an accident site, someone had lost a loved one. And that was never very far from my mind. I would have been perfectly happy to stay in my office all the time if it meant that there were no more losses,” said Bryson.