Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
National Emergency Management Association
Washington, D.C. February 10, 1997
Mr. Rodham and all members of the National Emergency Management
Association, thank you for inviting me here and giving me the
opportunity to discuss with you our developing family assistance
program, which has inevitably brought us closer together as partners
during the immediate aftermath of a major transportation accident.
I am no stranger to the good works you do. When I was in Governor
McWherter's office in Tennessee, I worked very closely with Lacy
Suiter, the head of TEMA, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Traditionally, the Safety Board has not been directly involved
in emergency management activities at an accident site, except
for providing assessments of how well the emergency response was
in the context of our survival factors investigations. That has
changed dramatically in the last year, and I'm happy to say that
I think we're starting to work out what will prove to be an effective
way of working together.
I want to take this opportunity to thank James Lee Witt and his
excellent staff at FEMA for their assistance during the aftermath
of TWA flight 800. The sheer magnitude of the accident, coupled
with the difficult logistics on Long Island, posed daunting problems
for our investigation. During those early weeks, FEMA provided
us with communications assistance and staffing in our command
And I must commend the magnificent work of the many organizations that have helped us in recent investigations. Specifically:
We at the NTSB have become increasingly impressed with the training,
the resources, and the professionalism of emergency management
agencies all around the country. That is why I am here today,
to thank you personally for all you do for the American people
and to promise you that we consider you full partners in our family
services responsibilities and on-site activities.
As a direct result of the TWA and ValuJet accidents, President
Clinton directed the Safety Board to coordinate all federal services
to the families of victims of major transportation accidents.
Subsequently, Congress passed legislation that requires the Safety
Board to provide family assistance to the victims of airline accidents
having "major" loss of life. That term is not defined.
I know that some of you were concerned about the legislation
and your expected role. I expect that by working together we
will be able to ease your concerns.
We have been working at the Safety Board to establish a viable
program in the absence of federal appropriation. We have now
had the experience of two major aviation accidents since passage
of the law, and I want to talk to you about those experiences
and how well we can work together.
Let me first tell you that we intend to institutionalize a procedure
we began late last year. Whenever we launch a Go-Team to a major
accident, we will contact the appropriate State Emergency Management
Agency to let them know where we're going and when we're going
to get there so that we can meet and coordinate arrangements
for the course of our on-scene investigation, and for the treatment
of families of victims and of survivors. That's our commitment
to you. We view this as a team effort.
I think it's important to explain how we got to this point.
Since the dawn of commercial aviation, the unpleasant duty of
notifying next of kin after airline accidents has fallen upon
the airline that had the accident, and that carrier often made
arrangements for the transportation of family members to a location
near the accident site, and for the return of victims' remains.
Carrier responsibility in this area was tacitly recognized by
law in the Federal Aviation Act.
Whether of not this modus operandi was ever adequate to
address the needs of victims' family members, it is clear that
the way things used to be done is not adequate today. The world
has changed and all of us involved in the events following major
accidents have to change with it. The combination of a litigious
society, expanded and aggressive 24-hour news coverage, and perhaps
a mistrust of authority all have contributed to this new environment.
In recent years, domestic family support groups were established
after the USAir accident near Pittsburgh and the American Eagle
accident in Roselawn, Indiana, both in late 1994. After meeting
with the families at our Pittsburgh hearing, I became convinced
that the government and the airlines must address their legitimate
Since passage of the new law, I have established a Family Affairs
division within our office of Government and Public Affairs, under
the leadership of Mr. Peter Goelz, whom many of you know and who
is with me today. That division is currently staffed by U.S.
Army Lt. Col. Gary Abe and Mr. Matthew Furman, an attorney. This
office has spearheaded preparation of memoranda of understanding
with government and private agencies, and, of course, has provided
on-scene assistance to victims' families.
Under our new authority:
While the law states that no political subdivision (such as a
State or local government) can "impede" NTSB authority
over family matters, we don't foresee that as a problem. Rather,
we rely on local and State authorities to assist us. In fact,
we envision our role as complementing local resources with federal
Let me talk to you about our two experiences since passage of
the Family Assistance Act. On November 19, 1996, a United Express
Beech 1900C collided with a King Air at intersecting runways in
Quincy, Illinois. All 14 persons on both aircraft died in the
Although this was a relatively low-fatality accident as major
airline disasters go, it still had a huge impact on local facilities.
The coroner had no medical expertise, and no facilities or staff
at his disposal. Under an agreement with the Department of Health
and Human Services, we arranged for a mobile morgue that was fully
equipped and supplied, and staffed by doctors and dentists. This
morgue was set up inside the vacant airport's firehouse, and served
as the mortuary.
Despite the fact that all 14 victims were badly burned, they
all were identified and returned to their families within four
days. This would not have been possible had local resources not
The State cooperation was good. They assisted us with everything
from transporting the morgue to setting up 24-hour security for
the recovered personal effects.
Although most families did not come to the scene, those who did
were taken to the accident site on the second full day. The city
provided us with police-escorted transportation for the family
members. The families who were on scene were briefed by NTSB
Member George Black and our Investigator-in-Charge, Tom Haueter.
Those family members who did not travel to Quincy were briefed
by staff members by phone.
On January 9, 1997, a Comair EMB-120, a Brasilia, crashed on
approach to Detroit, killing all 29 persons aboard. In this instance,
nearly all families came to the scene. The Michigan State Police
took care of security at the accident site, at the morgue and
at the hotel where the family members were staying.
The identification of victims began on the second full day following
the accident - Saturday - and continued through Wednesday. All
29 victims were identified. This was an extremely difficult task
because of the severe fragmentation of the remains and the extreme
cold temperatures in the days following the accident (wind chills
for many days after the accident were well below zero). A team
of 125 people worked in the ad hoc morgue set up in a hangar for
20 hours a day. A mobile morgue was flown in the morning after
the accident. Personal effects were recovered by teams of volunteers.
The local Mental Health office provided counseling for family
members and for rescue personnel.
What we have seen in these two accidents has been evident in
many accidents in the past. Local jurisdictions are not prepared
for the consequences of a once-in-a-lifetime event like a major
airliner crash. This is no criticism of them. You cannot build
an infrastructure to be prepared for such a rare event; it would
deprive communities of resources needed elsewhere for more pressing
The Monroe County crash of the Comair commuter in January brought
that county its highest death toll in a single event in more than
150 years. Any individual airline might go decades between fatal
accidents; it is difficult for them, too, to be completely prepared
for such an event.
The Safety Board deals with many major accidents every year.
And we've been doing this for 30 years. That is why we were
placed in charge of coordinating government services to the families,
and that is why we are optimistic that once we have agreements
in place with the many government and private agencies that can
provide needed services, and once we have this program funded,
we can fulfill the obligations given us by the American people
through legislative directive.
I can say that both of the recent accidents taught us lessons,
but they also demonstrated the benefits of our involvement; many
who have participated in previous incidents commented on how far
things had come and how much better off families were under the
more-organized on-scene effort.
Now, how can you work with us at future accidents? How much
time do we have?
We make no bones about the fact that we cannot succeed in our
investigations, much less our family liaison activities, without
strong support from local and State authorities. Let me list
just a few things you can do for us in future accident investigations.
Our interim plan has been drafted and industry and government
representatives, including NEMA, have been briefed. Memoranda
of understanding have been drafted; we signed the first one with
the Department of Justice.
The American Red Cross has been designated as the third party
organization responsible for mental health arrangements. It understands
its role requires coordination with local and State responders.
Finally, the Department of Transportation is organizing the task
force required by legislation that will report to Congress. FEMA
is a member of that panel.
While the new legislation pertains only to aviation accidents,
the Presidential directive covers all modes of transportation,
and we will need your help in responding to major railroad, highway,
marine and pipeline accidents in your jurisdictions. And, to
provide better services to our investigating teams, the Safety
Board opened a 24-hour communications center last week that will
support our investigative activities and our family support services.
This is a major new responsibility given to the Board, and really
to all of us. As I've said, in the past, most of these arrangements
were left to the good offices of the airline that had the accident.
It is now an obligation that, while we did not seek it, we promise
to fulfill. I ask you to join us in making this most difficult
task a success.
Thank you for inviting me.