A guiding hand in times of tragedy

The main players in the case of missing Madeleine McCann are well-known.

Since the three-year-old disappeared from the Portuguese holiday complex in May, the faces of her parents Kate and Gerry have become almost as recognisable as their daughter, the only apparent suspect, Robert Murat, has found himself the focus of rumour and speculation, and rarely a day goes by without questions of incompetence being levelled at the man in charge of the investigation, Chief Inspector Olegrio de Sousa.

However, behind the scenes there are many more anonymous individuals who have suddenly found themselves at the centre of possibly the most high-profile and so far unsolved case of recent years. One of them is Alan Pike, a man whose job is to help people cope in the immediate aftermath of major traumas.

As a clinical partner in of the Skipton-based Centre of Crisis Psychology, the former social worker has witnessed the fall-out of the 2004 Gran Canaria coach crash, in which two Scottish tourists were killed and 40 others injured, the terror attacks on Egypt's Sharm el Sheikh resort, and the devastation caused when Hurricane Wilma swept across Florida, but he admits his involvement with the McCann case has been unlike anything he has experienced before.

"Normally the centre intervenes following a major disaster and our role is to help begin to pick up the pieces," says Alan, who specialised in child protection before joining the centre three years ago. "When we got the call to go to Portugal clearly there had been no resolution and we found ourselves part of the ongoing situation and in quite a unique position of trust.

"The McCanns' family and friends have been incredibly supportive, but I think they have looked to us as a third party who can say anything they want to in the knowledge it will be in strictest confidence.

"The situation in Portugal can obviously change on a daily basis, but we try to talk them through situations which might arise and the kind of physical reactions they might experience, which I hope has given them back at least a little sense of control.

"We have also talked about what they may do next and although I have now come back to England I'm still very much their sounding board and they know they can pick up the phone to me 24 hours-a-day."

Those very first days after Madeleine's disappearance were all consumed by her parents' emotional appeals and press conferences the police hoped would shed much needed light on how the angelic-looking toddler had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

However, when lead after lead came to nothing, the investigation methods used by the Portuguese police were called into question, and in some cases compared unfavourably with the accepted UK approach. Somewhat inevitably the backlash against the McCanns who had inspired almost universal sympathy also began when Murat's lawyer criticised the couple's "strange" behaviour in leaving their children alone, and Portuguese newspapers repeated claims that detectives believed Madeleine had not been kidnapped, but murdered in the apartment.

The dust has since settled again, but having worked on disasters across the world, Alan has learned to appreciate cultural differences in the way countries cope in the aftermath.

"In certain countries the press will print stories and photographs which by our standards are completely unacceptable," says Alan. "Over here we tend to be a bit more circumspect, but there are certain places where appearing in the paper, whether for good or bad, brings a certain kind of kudos.

"Madeleine's disappearance would have been handled differently had it happened over here, where techniques have been refined over a long period of time.

"However, it's also important to recognise that in some countries the police just don't see it as their role to maintain open lines of communications with families and relatives involved in a case.

"Certainly in Portugal there appears to be a culture of secrecy, but not having information is often very frustrating and can result in what we call a secondary traumatic reaction."

Alan will be on hand for as long as the McCanns want his help, but in recent days, like the other members of the CCP's clinical team, he has also had one eye on Hurricane Dean, which hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with gusts of up to 105mph.

Two consultants are due to fly out to the likely disaster zone today and with the rest of the team on standby it has inevitably brought back memories of Hurricane Wilma, which left more than 60 people dead in 2005.

"People imagine that there is mass panic following a major disaster, but to be honest that's a little bit of myth," says Alan.

"Yes, they will be shocked and confused, but generally when people are traumatised the first thing they want to do is make themselves safe and often they just want to return home.

"When something like a hurricane strikes, our job is really to help the travel reps on the ground prioritise what needs to be done, so it can be anything from accompanying people to hospital visits to helping get them on return flights, in short it's about making a difficult situation as comfortable as it possibly can be."

It was that same motivation which 20 years ago inspired the opening of the centre.

On May 11, 1985, Michael Stewart was among the many thousands who sat down to watch the televised match between Bradford and Lincoln City and ended up witnessing one of football's biggest disasters.

Fifty six people lost their lives when flames engulfed a stand at Valley Parade and, as part of Bradford's social services team, Michael was assigned to look after the victims.

It was a turning point in his career and when later introduced to forensic psychologist Peter Hodgkinson, who had led a team working with the survivors and families of those who died when the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized on route from Zeebrugge, it was a meeting of minds.

Both men felt there had to be a better way of helping those who find themselves caught up in major disasters and while they have recently taken a step back from the day-to-day work of

the CCP, their vision very much lives on.

"In those days there was a tendency to organise a drop-in centre and wait to see who would turn up," says Anna Stewart, Michael's daughter, who became managing partner of CCP two years ago.

"Dad and Peter's approach was to personally seek out those who had been affected.

"After any trauma 45 per cent of those involved will go on to develop a post-traumatic reaction. There is no easy way to identify who will fall into that 45 per cent and research shows that even if you set up a dedicated helpline only five per cent will pick up the phone.

"Our answer is to adopt a proactive approach, letting people know we are there and asking what they want us to do."

The centre now works with individual businesses, helping staff overcome everything from a colleague's death to workplace stress, but it is its contracts with the travel industry which has propelled it into international disaster zones, from the Bali bombing to the Boxing Day tsunami.

"We use the analogy of being lost in the desert," says Anna, "It is quite confusing and frightening, but if someone shows you where you are, where you need to get to and the kind of things you are likely to experience on the way, suddenly it becomes easier to

deal with.

"There are other organisations offering a similar service, but we are the only ones to employ our consultants on a full-time basis, which means they are able to build up more long-term relationships with our clients.

"In many ways not much has changed since the centre first opened all those years ago, we still operate very much like a family, and when you could be sent out to a disaster zone at a moment's notice it's important to know there are people looking out

for you."