The sociology of disasters is still an unexplored field, Anne Eyre of Coventry University told delegates. Dr Eyre is conducting a study of the long-term effects of some 1980s tragedies.
The 1980s saw a rash of disasters: the Bradford fire, Manchester Airport, Zeebrugge, Hillsborough, Lockerbie, Kings Cross and the Marchioness. Although the 1990s have produced fewer major disasters, Dr Eyre believes that technology, terrorism and the environment present serious risks.
Research has concentrated on the immediate pathological response, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr Eyre. By studying interviews with survivors and relatives, she hopes to gain an insight into the long-term psycho-social effects.
The research is exploring experiences, feelings and opinions to challenge the label of "obsessive" often attached to grieving victims.
Public interest continues for months and years after the event in the form of public inquiry, inquests and the collection and distribution of disaster funds, Dr Eyre said.
"A public discourse of shock, sympathy, blame and accountability is orchestrated through the media and a well-rehearsed narrative polarises the heroes and the villains regardless of the appropriateness of these constructions."
Disasters are further complicated because it is often difficult to establish the nature, cause and moment of death. Survivors are left with incomplete or conflicting accounts. "Consequently in situations of mass tragic death there is a greater need to blame someone. A feature of grief is to focus on the responding authorities and the way in which they have conducted their affairs," Dr Eyre said.
Time is also an important factor, she added. The events and decisions made in the first few weeks remain part of the process of constructing an account of the death for years to come.
For instance, the Marchioness Action Group is still trying to establish why the hands of some of the victims were removed under the instruction of the coroner.
CASE STUDY: THE MARCHIONESS TRAGEDY
Saturday August 20 1989. A mother learns that her son, who was on the Marchioness, is officially missing, presumed dead. There is no body; she still hopes and goes up to London every day. "Because I wanted to find him. I wanted to be with him and see him because I really, really hadn't given up hope. I still didn't want to accept it."
She feels pressurised into planning a service and choosing a coffin. "You've got these people so businesslike. 'What lining do you want for the coffin?'
He's not even found. I'm holding on to hope, praying that I'm going to wake up and he's going to bounce through the door."
His body is not found until Thursday. She wants to see him to confirm the death in her own mind. The body is in a sealed coffin under the coroner's jurisdiction and she is not allowed to view. She is very upset about this as she has strong feelings about laying the body out. She is unable to fulfil that wish.
She gets to see photographs of her dead son three months later. She is shocked to read the post mortem report. No one had informed her that this had taken place. Dr Eyre says: "Not only has the ordinary order of death been distorted but certain aspects of the death ritual have been denied. The result is grief compounded by anger."