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Tuesday, 20 June, 2000, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Telling a tale of tragedy

As police attempt to unravel the events that led to 58 people perishing in the back of a lorry in Dover, the tragedy's two survivors must revisit their ordeal.

The need to swiftly investigate disasters often has to be reconciled with the long-term wellbeing of those who live through them.

The case of the two men who were released alive from the Dutch-registered lorry in which 58 others died illustrates this difficult balancing act.

Dr Martin Deahl, a consultant at St Bartholomew's Hospital, says that while it is imperative for the authorities to take statements, the questioning should be handled "tactfully and sympathetically".
The lorry's cargo is examined
The survivors are vital to the police investigation

"They may not be in a fit state to talk about anything for a considerable time," says Mr Deahl.

Their physical and emotional trials may well have left the men confused, disorientated and "numb", only able to offer a "distorted" version of their story.

Fears about possible reprisals by those who smuggled them into the UK, or prosecution by authorities here or abroad, will only deepen the duo's anguish.

"They will be frightened that what they say will be used against them. They'll be uncertain and have that worry, no matter how much they are reassured," says Mr Deahl.

"A decision about their future should also be made as soon as possible."

Long journey

While talking about their ordeal may help the two come to terms with events, giving police a factual account of their journey to the UK can only be the first step in a long process.

Mr Deahl says if a few police officers are able to win the confidence of the pair and forge a relationship of trust, the men may feel more able to confront the tragedy.

"They have to be given time to talk about the experience."

While the men will be deeply troubled by their ordeal, it can take many months for the symptoms of illnesses, such as post traumatic stress disorder, to appear.
Routine checks in Dover
Their ordeal in the lorry may scar the survivors

The men will have to be monitored closely to see if they develop mental and emotional problems, and a counselling programme designed to meet their specific needs.

Counselling experts are increasingly warning that the process of recovering from traumatic events needs to be delicately handled and tailored to the individual.

The Institute of Employment recently released a report suggesting the swift "debriefing" of survivors can do more harm than good.

Whereas traditional counselling usually involves a person seeking help, so-called "debriefing" instead sees survivors offered immediate and intensive treatment.

Slow and steady

Dr Jo Rick, the report's co-author, says the practice of asking people to express their thoughts and feelings so soon after a tragic event is being questioned.

"It seems like a very sensible, cathartic approach, but using fairly powerful psychological techniques to prompt people to relive these events may actually cause more damage."

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