Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the
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 center.

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 concerns.

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 assets.

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 accident.

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 been supplemented.

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 community needs.

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.

Jim Hall's Speeches