Testimony of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Aviation, House of Representatives
Regarding H.R. 3923, Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996
September 5, 1996

Good morning Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I am pleased to be here today to present my views on H.R. 3923, the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. Mr. Chairman, the testimony I am presenting are my personal views, and do not reflect a Board position.

First, I would like to give you and the Committee an update on the status of the investigation into the tragic loss of TWA flight 800. As you know, flight 800 disappeared from radar screens at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996. Carrying 230 passengers and crew, the flight was bound for Paris, France. The aircraft suffered a catastrophic explosion or explosions, and evidence indicates that this explosion likely involved the center fuel tank, which was empty at the time of takeoff. Because of immediate and intense concern that this tragedy could have been an act of terror, the NTSB, while leading the investigation, has been working closely with the FBI and other Federal and state agencies in trying to uncover exactly what happened to flight 800.

The tragedy occurred at dusk in clear weather and wreckage fell in an area approximately 6 to 9 miles off East Moriches, Long Island. Coast Guard search and rescue vessels and aircraft were on the accident scene within minutes. They were assisted by numerous private vessels; but, unfortunately, there were no survivors. The wreckage sank to the Ocean bottom at a depth of approximately 120 feet, and it was spread out over 5 1/2 square miles. The NTSB called in the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage to coordinate the recovery efforts.

If I could make a personal statement, the officers and crew of the Navy ships U.S.S. GRASP U.S.S. GRAPPLE, U.S.S. OAK HILL and the PIROUETTE have done an extraordinary job under the most difficult conditions. Operating on a 24-hour-a-day basis, they have worked in an extremely dangerous environment, and from the beginning the top priority has been the recovery of victims. The divers want nothing more than to recover every victim, and to date 211 have been recovered. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, under the circumstances, and we pray that more victims will be recovered.

To date the investigative team has been unable to determine what was the likely cause of this accident. Although there have been tantalizing bits of evidence, there has been no so-called "smoking gun." Our investigation is on-going, and with about 75 percent of the plane recovered, we expect our efforts to continue in the coming weeks until we have brought to the surface and examined every piece of wreckage possible.

Let me now address the issue at hand and relate this bill to the efforts made on behalf of the family members of flight 800. First, I personally support this bill, not because it gives the NTSB more responsibility -- we are a small agency with a targeted mission -- but because it's the right thing to do. Something needs to be done to better coordinate services for family members of victims of air disasters. Let me describe briefly some of the challenges we faced in New York.

The NTSB Go-Team arrived on-scene on Thursday, July 18, 1996, at 6:15 a.m. Our Regional Aviation Director from Parsippany, New Jersey, had been on Long Island since 10:45 p.m. the previous evening. He had been doing ground work for the arrival of our Go-Team and had been performing preliminary investigative activities.

Early Thursday evening the NTSB's Director of Government and Public Affairs arrived at the Ramada Hotel at Kennedy International Airport, met with local officials and briefed the approximately 400 family members who had already gathered at the hotel on the status of the investigation. It was clear at this session -- as it was clear at the ValuJet tragedy -- that at times like this the only two agencies that family members really want to hear from are the NTSB and the medical examiner's office. As the sole agency responsible for the investigation, family members want to hear directly from us, and, frankly, it is our responsibility to give them accurate and timely information.

The tragedy on Long Island presented us with unprecedented logistical challenges. Family members were located at Kennedy International Airport; the staging area and temporary morgue were 1 1/2 hours away at East Moriches, New York; the NTSB command post was at the only available hotel at Smithtown, New York -- 1 1/4 hours away (almost an hour from East Moriches); and the hangar where the reconstruction of the shattered aircraft would be reconstructed was not really near any of the above -- at Calverton, New York.

The logistics of the accident made even very basic communications difficult. Couple this with the very aggressive media market in New York, the numerous governmental jurisdictions involved, and the magnitude and multi-national aspects of the tragedy, and there is little wonder that some family members felt frustrated.

When President Clinton visited the family members on July 25, 1996, he named the NTSB as the sole agency authorized to speak to the family members, and he gave the NTSB much needed support from FEMA to get the mission accomplished. I want to thank the President and FEMA Director James Lee Witt for their concern and their prompt action. With the additional support and resources, the NTSB was able to establish twice a day group briefings that were simultaneously translated into both French and Italian. The briefings and extensive one-on-one meetings went until Friday, August 2, 1996, when fewer than 15 families were left at the Ramada Hotel. At that time, under the advice of the Red Cross and State mental health professionals, the family members remaining were encouraged to return home to a more supportive environment. A follow-up network, including an 800 number, was put in place.

The NTSB continues to field probably a dozen telephone calls a day from family members, and we distribute periodic updates via fax to family members, and to the French and Italian Embassies, and just recently I wrote to the next-of-kin updating them on our efforts.

This tragedy, Mr. Chairman, again points out a fundamental need that this bill addresses.

When an airplane goes down with passenger fatalities, someone needs to be in charge of seeing that family members are treated decently and that they receive information and services in a timely manner. Historically, this role has been fulfilled by the airlines involved in the accident. As we have seen in recent years, the airlines have been unable or unwilling to address family concerns in a manner that is satisfactory to all involved.

Since the NTSB is the sole agency in charge of the investigation and for determining the probable causes of accidents, it stands to reason that family members would want to hear from us. As Chairman of the NTSB, I am prepared to direct staff to take the lead in seeing that the appropriate services and information are delivered to family members. I say this, in part, because I believe the investigative authority of the NTSB must not be diluted in any way, and by housing this important responsibility at the NTSB you ensure a coordinated, unified approach. But if given this new responsibility, we will need the resources to get the job done. I look forward to working with you to see that the appropriate authority and resources go along with the responsibility.

However, I also believe that the individual carriers have a basic and fundamental responsibility to the family members of its passengers. These responsibilities must be met by the airlines regardless of the potential of future liability. Too often in the past the many acts of compassion, decency and kindness performed by the airlines' care teams have been undone by the thoughtless decisions of underwriters and lawyers. If tasked by Congress with this new responsibility, I will meet with the Part 121 and 135 carriers to review their accident response plans to ensure that their plans meet the family needs and not simply the needs of the insurance underwriters.

Mr. Chairman, I also believe that there are resources already existing in the Federal sector that could be mobilized in the support of this new mission for the NTSB, but the NTSB will need the authority to task these agencies to assist us.

Again, I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this second hearing, and I want to thank the Members of the Subcommittee for committing to a plan of action. The NTSB did not seek this new authority, but if given it we will act on behalf of the families in the thorough and responsible manner that has characterized our investigations for almost 30 years.

Mr. Chairman, that completes my statement and I will be happy to respond to questions.

Jim Hall's Speeches