“We too have tears in our eyes”

Flowers and candles for the victims of the train accident © Matthias Balk

Emergency chaplaincy workers © Maja Hitij

Where the work of rescue workers ends, emergency pastoral care begins – this was also the case with the serious train accident in Bad Aibling. Catholic deacon Hermann Saur was on site as coordinator of the pastoral care team.

Catholic News Agency (KNA): Mr. Saur, you were on site in Bad Aibling. What have you done specifically?

Deacon Hermann Saur (head of emergency pastoral care in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising): I coordinated the team of twelve emergency chaplains. I am always the one who tries to bring order into all the chaos of an accident. Various structures are ramped up at the same time: Police, rescue service, fire department. Somewhere in between the rescue operation, there are not only injured people, but also uninjured people and relatives of those affected – people who need psychological help right now. We have to find these people and accompany and look after them with the appropriate structures.

CBA: What does this accompaniment look like?

Saur: The technical term for this is psychoeducation. In a person who has just experienced a disaster, not injured or only slightly injured, the body switches into a kind of autopilot. Some of the people don't even notice their pain. We have people who are standing in front of you with a broken leg and don't even realize it. People then think: "Nothing happened to me, I'm fine, hurry away." When the whole organism comes to rest again after a few hours, only then is it all worked through. This happens through so-called flashbacks – images of the accident situation, which are not only memories. For example, people are lying in bed at night and realize from one split second to the next that they are not lying in their bed, but they are back in the middle of the accident scene. That's a very normal reaction to a non-normal event. Our job is to prepare people for something like this. When they want to leave the scene of the accident, we tell them what can happen in the next few weeks in terms of processing mechanisms, and still hand over an information sheet that we always have with us.

CBA: What was it like in Bad Aibling?

Saur: We had the priority with the relatives of the fatalities. I was sitting with the police incident commander. After the dead had been recovered and their identities established, we formed teams of two together with the police – a police officer with an emergency chaplain. These people then went to the families, if possible, and delivered the news. The dead were transferred to the coroner's office Tuesday night. Many relatives wanted to see them again beforehand. We have also organized this.

CBA: A difficult task that is probably also very close to you personally?

Saur: For us chaplains, this is the most difficult assignment. We find ourselves in situations in which the world is just fine, and suddenly we have to deliver this news. On the other hand, both police officers and we emergency chaplains are specially trained to do this.

CBA: How do you have to think about it?

Saur: Actually, it's things that are obvious. If someone opens the door, a policeman is standing in front of the door and you are possibly waiting for your partner to call anyway, then the uniform is already the message. On the other hand, you still have hope that the police officer will only say that the partner is seriously injured in the hospital. But then the chaplain or police officer must get to the point without much ado, after the person's identity has been established. For example: "I'm sorry, your husband was killed in a traffic accident today." To say what happened and then keep your mouth shut. Every person affected reacts differently, and chaplains have to endure that with people as well. Only later come questions like: "What happened?? May I see him again?"We must always be prepared for this.

CBA: Such experiences are also very emotional for pastors. Do you personally have images that will stay with you throughout your life?

Saur: I never forgot a mission, no matter where I was. Just as all beautiful experiences remain in you, so do all terrible ones. There are already pictures of which one says, I didn't really need to see them now. But that I can't get rid of something personally, I didn't.

CBA: They have special follow-up courses for this?

Saur: Exactly, in the emergency chaplaincy system we have quality standards throughout Germany. This includes, for example, 16 hours of obligatory supervision within two years. On the other hand, it's personal rituals, like washing clothes after a mission. As an emergency chaplain, spirituality is of course very important. This raises questions about the personal image of God, how to deal with death and how to integrate it into personal life. This total package makes up the reappraisal. Every single action takes us with it, we also have tears in our eyes. But we also realize that we are there to accompany the suffering of others. This is what keeps us psychologically healthy.

CBA: How it goes on now to Bad Aibling?

Saur: We have installed a hotline for all those who were on the train and left the scene unharmed and unattended. During the day, an emergency chaplain sits there and either answers questions directly or refers them to other emergency chaplains. Along the way, we try to organize church services and funeral ceremonies with the local chaplains.

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