Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the National Emergency Management Association
Boston, Massachusetts, August 25, 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 family assistance
program, which has brought us closer together as partners during
the immediate aftermath of major transportation accidents.
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, then head of TEMA, the Tennessee
Emergency Management Agency. More recently, I worked closely with
Lacy again during the recovery efforts of TWA Flight 800, where
FEMA played such a useful role.
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 develop 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.
We at the NTSB are 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. I know
that some of you were concerned about the legislation and your
expected role. I expect that by continuing to work together we
will be able to ease your concerns. We have now had the experience
of three major aviation accidents since passage of the law, and
I want to talk to you about those experiences and how well we
have and continue to 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 had 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'
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 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
headed by retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gary Abe and staffed by Matthew
Furman, an attorney, and Liz Cotham. 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
Let me talk to you about our 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.
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, which
eventually numbered nearly 200 people. 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, and 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 isn't a 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.
Most recently, the Board sent a team of investigators
and family affairs personnel to the Territory of Guam in response
to the fatal crash of Korean Air Flight 801. With more than two
hundred fatalities, the local medical examiner was overwhelmed
by the task he faced and immediately accepted the NTSB's offer
of assistance. The National Disaster Mortuary System was deployed
and more than one hundred personnel arrived on the island within
days after the crash.
Because of the nature of the crash and the
post-accident fire, many of the victims will be difficult to identify.
Even more difficult, in fact, was the recovery operation, with
remains buried under several feet of mud or in many cases, mingled
in among the tangled wreckage. To assist the local and military
authorities in the recovery effort, the NTSB asked for and received
three cadaver dogs from FEMA. Those dogs and their handlers have
recently left the island after several days of recovery efforts.
In the case of KAL 801, once again it was clear
that the local authorities were unprepared for this accident,
particularly since it occurred in such a remote location. Because
the crash occurred on U.S. Navy property, the military played
an active role in on-scene operations and provided the much needed
command and control structure. Had they not been there, I am certain
operations would not have proceeded as smoothly as they did. The
NTSB saw as its role to integrate the military into its operations,
much like we would do with a local emergency management agency,
and harness whatever resources we needed.
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 these 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 final plan has been drafted and industry
and government representatives, including NEMA, have been briefed.
Memoranda of understanding have been signed with six cabinet-level
agencies, including FEMA.
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 and
the NTSB have organized a task force required by legislation that
will report to Congress. FEMA and NEMA are members 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
this year 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.