An airplane crash in San Francisco and runaway crude oil tanker cars serve as stark reminders of the mayhem that major accidents cause — and the giant need they present for savvy crisis response by those directly and indirectly implicated.
While details still are emerging about what caused each incident, there is no question both represent nightmarish PR problems for Asiana Airlines and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. Pilot error appears the cause of the Boeing 777 crash, as the plane was going too slowly as it approached the landing strip and clipped off its tail by hitting a seawall. The 73 tanker cars full of crude oil from North Dakota that plunged downhill into a small Quebec town may have broken loose from a train engine that shut down, releasing its air brakes.
Miraculously, only two people died in the plane crash, though dozens of people were injured, a few critically. There are three reported deaths so far from the train accident, which sent tanker cars into at least 30 buildings and exploded into fires, which spread into nearby homes in Lac-Mégantic, a quiet town of 6,000 residents near the border with Maine.
For Asiana Airlines, and perhaps for the airline industry more generally, the accident will lead to questions about the relatively slim amount of training the pilot had on this aircraft. It also may call into question the utility of a stall warning that apparently didn't leave the pilot or crew enough time to react. Most of all, it will rekindle questions — and fears — about plane safety.
Even though there are no immediate indications of part failures, Boeing should be on alert for scrutiny following its high-profile safety issues involving the 767 Dreamliner. That's the way crises work — they spread out like spilled oil on a beach, potentially fouling everything from sandy beaches to bird nests.
The owners of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway face a huge challenge to rebuild a town its tanker cars literally destroyed, not to mention address the loss of life and injury caused by war-like explosions on a sunny summer night when people were enjoying themselves at downtown bistros.