The effects of different levels of exposure on persistence of stress disorders in rescue volunteers: the case of the ATR 72 air disaster in Palermo

Gli effetti di differenti livelli espositivi sulla persistenza dei disturbi da stress nei soccorritori volontari: il caso del disastro aereo dell'ATR 72 a Palermo

M. Ricciardi*, R. Valsavoia*, M. Russo**, L. Ferraro*, D. Alloro*, N. Messina*, A. Dolce***, D. La Barbera*

* Section of Psychiatry, Department of Biosperimental Medicine and Clinical Neuroscience, University of Palermo, Italy; ** Psychosis Clinical Academic Group, Institute of Psychiatry, King's Health Partners, King's College London; *** ISTAT, National Institute, Palermo

Background and objective

Emotional, behavioural and cognitive consequences of an air disaster on the direct and indirect victims and rescuers have not been investigated thoroughly, particularly due to the rarity of this type of event. Therefore exploring residual stress disorders in people involved in rescuing is worth undertaking. The aim of this study is to investigate persistence of stress disorders on the voluntary rescuers involved in the tragedy after the crash of the ATR 72 flight in water near Palermo (Italy), which occurred on August 6th, 2005. There were 16 deaths, 3 people missing and 23 survivors of the crash.


We analysed peritraumatic reactions associated to the disaster in a sample of 103 voluntary rescuers after one year from the event. The sample was divided into two groups: Directly Exposed (DE) and Indirectly Exposed (IE). In particular, we examined specific risk factors “pre-disaster” (age, gender and other socio-demographic characteristics) and we estimated frequency of intrusive or avoidance symptoms, trait anxiety, arousal level, depression level and perceived social support. These were related to how much exposed and involved the rescuers were in the event.


The sample was composed by 60.2% male and 39.8% female. There were no significant differences between men and women as regards age, level of education and employment status (Table I). Psychological assessment shows statistically significant differences between the two groups. In particular, the DE group presents higher level of stress, anxiety and arousal than the IE group. There were no significant differences in mean scores and variance of depression (Table II).


Two main findings emerged: a) despite the absence of influence of the risk factors identified by the scientific literature, it is still possible to observe significant levels of stress disorders 1 year after the event; b) high exposure levels lead to increased psychological problems such as anxiety, avoidance and somatic pain, however depression was not significantly present in neither of the two groups. Further studies are needed to clarify the psychological impact of traumatic events on rescue volunteers in order to improve the management of emergency situations.

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