Retrieving bodies is nightmare for London rescuers: Air is absolutely fetid

Netscape News

July 9, 2005

LONDON, July 9 (Reuters) - Retrieval teams working deep underground to recover bodies after the London bomb attacks are battling ghastly conditions that one expert compared to a "foetid drain."

The work was so mentally challenging that each member was receiving special training and support, a leading psychologist said on Saturday.

"What they are in now is essentially a foetid drain with danger, with body parts, with ghastly circumstances. That is a very, very hard duty," James Thompson, senior lecturer in psychology at University College London, told Reuters.

"These are conditions that would defeat ordinary civilians but these are people carefully recruited for their personal stability, given intense training and working in a mutually supportive team," he said.

More than 50 people were killed in the blasts on Thursday on three underground trains and a bus.

Police are working in a hot, cramped tunnel to try to reach an unknown number of bodies in a train about 30 metres (100 feet) below the surface.

Thompson said an important factor was the extent of the training given to the teams to help them put up what amounts to an emotional shield between themselves and their grisly task.

"Many of them have protective routines they go through mentally. They don't always work, but they sometimes work," he said. "They are aware that in one sense these are no longer people. This is simply a scene which has to be investigated.

"Some of the things that you and I would attach to the whole business of going through, where someone has died, they would essentially see as tasks," he said.

Thompson said the workers needed sensitive team management to ensure they knew exactly what the task was and how long they would be be doing it. Debriefings after each shift and good accommodation were considered vital.

"A lot of their complaints are things like the specimen bags were not delivered correctly or the breathing apparatus had to be adjusted. This is the sort of thing that tough men are willing to talk about in the early stages of a debriefing," he said.

"Then, when you take them through to the bar and let them drink a bit, you get many more reactions," he added. "The other thing is that the guys respect each other enormously. They are very supportive in terms of group solidarity."

Thompson said that, far from laying down deep psychological problems that would emerge years later, the signs of stress became obvious soon after the immediate task was completed and these were monitored very carefully.

He said the team would have been relieved to know that relatively few children would be among the victims because the blasts occured during the morning rush hour.

"I know that the thing firefighters have most difficulty with is kids left in the upstairs room (of burning houses). That gets them in a rage," Thompson added.

"If it is someone who is already of an age, the mental reaction is 'you poor bastard. We are doing what we can for you, and there it is'. It is easier to handle."

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07/09/2005 11:01