Testimony of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Aviation, House of Representatives
Regarding The Treatment of Families After Airline Accidents
June 19, 1996
Good morning Chairman Duncan and Members of
the Subcommittee. I am pleased to provide testimony regarding
the treatment of families after airline accidents. Mr. Chairman,
the testimony I am presenting are my personal views, and do not
reflect a Board position.
The issue of how family members of victims
of airline accidents are treated and responded to is a timely
one. The recent tragic crash of ValuJet flight 592 brought home
to the NTSB just how important a prompt, compassionate and truthful
response is to family members and friends who have lost loved
ones suddenly and violently. The NTSB has seen a dramatic change
in the nature of major aircraft accidents. The combination of
a litigious society, aggressive 24-hour news coverage, and perhaps
a mistrust of authority all contribute to a very challenging environment
surrounding major accidents.
Family members are demanding more accountability
and more services in the aftermath of an accident. I believe that
most of these demands are just common sense. Your next panel of
witnesses will, I am sure, ably articulate the problems family
members have faced and the solutions they feel need to be implemented.
I will confine my testimony to the experiences of the NTSB over
the past 1 1/2 years.
As a member of the NTSB, I have visited the
scene of three major, non-survivable airline crashes: American
Eagle flight 4184, which crashed and killed 68 in Roselawn, Indiana,
on October 31, 1994; USAir flight 427, which crashed and killed
132 just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 8,
1994; and last week I went to the Florida Everglades and the scene
of the ValuJet flight 592 accident, which killed all 110 aboard.
If I could comment personally for one moment.
I had two friends from Tennessee who lost their lives on flight
592. One -- a vibrant young woman named Angie Greene from Nashville
worked with me in Governor Ned McWherter's office. She was a committed
young woman, devoted to her family and friends. The other was
Rafael Lameda from Cookeville. A young father of two, Rafael was
active in politics and worked on advance for Vice President Gore.
A native of Venezuela, he loved this country and its political
process. As I attended their memorial services and met with their
families, I recommitted myself to ensuring that all family members
of these tragic events are treated with respect, with compassion,
and with truth. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.
While the NTSB has always responded to individual
family member's requests for information, the public hearing on
USAir flight 427 was the first time we were asked to respond to
an organized group of family members. On the first day of the
hearing, the family members filed into the meeting room and took
seats. Many held pictures of loved ones who had perished in the
crash, and most wore buttons identifying themselves as members
of the newly-formed Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League. Their
presence at the hearing was a new phenomena for the NTSB -- an
organized group asking to be recognized and treated as a group.
In the past, family members and survivors had contacted the Board
and had their requests handled on a case by case basis.
In Pittsburgh, the family member requests were
straightforward -- requesting reserved seating at the Board's
public hearing, copies of factual reports and docket material,
a briefing on the status of the investigation, and a private tour
of the hangar where the wreckage of flight 427 had been laid out
and stored. The requests generated considerable debate within
the NTSB about the appropriate level of agency response. Some
argued that since the hearing was open to the public, preferential
treatment of family members was unnecessary and counterproductive.
Further arguments were made that the hearing was highly technical
in nature, and some expressed concern that dealing with family
members in this manner was outside our mission of accident investigation
and probable cause determination.
Let me tell you what I thought then and what
I believe today. The family members of that accident and of every
tragic transportation accident are taxpayers. They pay my salary
and they pay for the investigative work of the NTSB. Within reason
and within the resources available to us, I believe we must be
responsive. It is the right thing to do. I also believe that the
power of the NTSB comes, to a great degree, from the public's
confidence in our mission. The NTSB relies on the public's belief
that each and every investigation we undertake will be completed
with the highest degree of technical competence and integrity.
We rely on the public's support of our recommendations to improve
safety. It is my belief that when the public makes reasonable
requests of its officials, we ought to respond. It's that simple.
Responding affirmatively seemed to open a flood
gate of emotion and complaints. The issues raised by the family
members to me in Pittsburgh were so disturbing that upon my return
to Washington, D. C., I called Transportation Secretary Federico
Peña and asked to meet with him on this matter. On February
1, 1995, Secretary Peña and I met and agreed that many
of the issues and concerns raised by family members deserved further
examination. We agreed that we would work together exploring these
concerns and try to develop a strategy to ensure that the feelings
of mistreatment would not be repeated.
Over the next three months, DOT and NTSB staff
worked together researching the issues and documenting the treatment
of family members at other major accidents. I returned to Pittsburgh
in April and met with a large group of family members and, for
those who had not already done so, again invited the families
to the hangar where the wreckage was stored.
Flight 427 was an extraordinarily destructive
accident and some family members received no remains to bring
home and bury. Visiting the hangar, I was told, helped bring closure
for many. The NTSB received many compliments from those family
members who went on the two solemn visits to the hangar.
In June 1995, Secretary Peña and I convened
a meeting at the NTSB with family members and survivors from major
accidents. The purpose of our meeting was to list and examine
the critical issues surrounding the treatment of family members.
Although I am sure the family members will also submit a copy
of this working document for the record, I will also be attaching
it to my remarks. This list of 14 issues, nine of which were discussed
in depth, represents the concerns, the problems, and the mistakes
family members confronted at major airline accidents. It is important
In August 1995, Secretary Peña and I
chaired a meeting with representatives of 11 major air carriers,
ATA and Amtrak, as a followup to the June meeting with family
members. At this meeting members of the newly-formed National
Air Disaster Alliance made a presentation focusing on the issues
examined in depth at the June meeting. ATA agreed then to coordinate
the industry response and to report back on next steps. Since
that time, ATA has met on this issue but we have received no plan
or comprehensive response. Individual airlines, I would point
out, have reached out to family members and to the NTSB for assistance,
but to our knowledge the questions raised by family members remain
unanswered by the industry as a whole.
The NTSB, however, decided that there were
some things that we could do that might help. First, we developed
a brochure written for family members that describes the accident
investigation process, the roles of the various governmental agencies,
and the likely time frame that the investigation falls within.
A copy of that brochure is attached for your information.
Secondly, I assigned the NTSB Office of Government
Affairs the responsibility of responding to family needs at the
The recent tragic ValuJet accident in Miami
highlighted how far we have come, but more needs to be done.
On Saturday evening, only hours after the crash,
NTSB staff contacted the ValuJet persons responsible for handling
family members and reviewed with them the key points identified
by previous family members. On Sunday afternoon, the NTSB began
twice daily private briefings for family members. The ValuJet
accident was the most challenging on scene investigation in our
agency's history, and conveying the destruction of the impact,
the remoteness of the site, and the difficulty of the recovery
to family members was critical.
Morning briefings started at 9:00 a.m. and
generally lasted two hours. Evening briefings began at 8:00 p.m.
and often did not conclude until well after midnight. Because
of the extraordinary media coverage given to this accident, family
members needed to hear the facts from the NTSB -- no one else
would do. Because the NTSB is in charge of the accident investigation
and the accident site, and is the sole spokesman to the media,
the family members need to hear first from us.
In Miami, NTSB staff invited fire and rescue
personnel to discuss with the family members the search and rescue
attempts, and the medical examiner to discuss the identification
of remains. We also called on other resources to assist the families
in dealing with this terrible situation. On the Wednesday following
the accident, the NTSB, in conjunction with Dade County Fire and
Rescue, arranged for a memorial service to be held adjacent to
the actual accident site in the Everglades. Over 100 family members
made the two-hour trip to the site. This week, I will be writing
to each of the family members updating them on our investigation
and further outlining NTSB responsibilities.
I believe we did a better job for relatives
of victims at this accident, but I believe we can all still do
better. For example, I do not know how well family members were
handled if they did not come to Miami. We all need to make sure
that all family members get accurate information. I believe that
every Part 121 and Part 135 airline should be required to have
an in-depth plan in place should they experience an accident.
This plan should be reviewed annually to ensure that it is truly
responsive to the needs of families. Secondly, I believe that
joint efforts should be made to address the issues raised by family
members at our June 20, 1995 meeting.
Mr. Chairman, you and the Committee will shortly
be hearing from a number of family members, and I am sure they
will share with you some of the very troubling treatment they
and others, unfortunately, have received. This treatment, however
unintentional, is unacceptable. As I stated previously, because
of the litigious society, aggressive news coverage, and a mistrust
of authority, the traditional approach is no longer adequate to
address the needs and concerns of family members. They need to
know there is a single, independent source for information. Mr.
Chairman, nothing will be accomplished unless government, industry
and helping services such as the American Red Cross work together.
Although to date we have been unsuccessful at having industry
take a comprehensive look into this issue, perhaps now, with the
support of Congress, we can reach that goal. Family members deserve
humane treatment and I stand ready to work with you, with family
members, and with the industry to find a solution.
That completes my statement, and I will be
happy to respond to any questions you may have.