Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Passenger Vessel Association
Nashville, Tennessee, January 24, 1998
Thank you, Roger. Good Afternoon, Ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for your most gracious welcome. I’m delighted to be here to speak to the premier association of small passenger vessel owners and operators in the United States.
I have spoken to you in the past about our concerns for the safety of passenger vessel operations. They are concerns I know you share, and I’m happy to acknowledge that we are continuing to form a working relationship to address those concerns.
You represent companies responsible for the safety of at least 80 million passengers a year carried on about 5,000 vessels of varying sizes. You are to be commended for your safety record, but I would be remiss if I did not emphasize for you again the value of a strong safety corporate culture.
Every day, we at the Safety Board deal with accidents that could have been avoided had people not forgotten their responsibilities in this area, and that includes people on the shop floor to people in the boardroom.
Last year, I had the rare opportunity to visit the Kvaerner Masa Yards in Helsinki, Finland, and to observe the construction of two huge cruise liners, the Elation and the Paradise, both slated to begin service this year. At 70,400 tons, they are more than 50 percent larger than the Titanic. And plans are underway to construct cruise ships at that yard that are twice as large as the ones I saw being built – 130,000 tons, three times the size of the Titanic.
These ships, like that doomed liner 86 years ago, feature the latest in modern accommodations, and I’m sure in most cases, the latest in safety equipment. One thing we can be sure of is there will be enough lifeboats to accommodate all souls on board. That was one safety lesson the world only had to learn once. Yet, it is imperative that those responsible for constructing those vessels, and those responsible for operating those vessels, never lose sight of the importance of safety over everything else.
The message has not gotten through to everyone. If it had, we wouldn’t need an Office of Marine Safety at the NTSB, or investigators from other U.S. agencies and organizations around the world.
Organizations like yours, which can facilitate the distribution of safety information and set industry standards that in the long run protect all of you – because as with many things in life, an industry’s safety is often defined in the public’s mind by the lowest denominator, not the highest – present a second line of defense for passengers, after the first line established by the operators themselves.
That is why I am here, to acknowledge your success, and to remind you that safety, like liberty, requires constant vigilance.
The National Transportation Safety Board is best known for its investigations of major aviation accidents, particularly the TWA 800 accident. But as you know, the Board also investigates major highway, rail, pipeline and marine accidents.
Many of you are familiar with the National Transportation Safety Board, mostly I suspect by reputation, not by first-hand knowledge. The NTSB was established in 1967 as an independent agency so that we could conduct objective oversight of the operating practices and regulations of the Department of Transportation. Because DOT is charged with both the regulation and promotion of transportation in the United States, and investigation of accidents may suggest deficiencies in the transportation system, the Safety Board’s independence is vital for objective oversight. And because the NTSB neither regulates, funds nor is directly involved with transportation operations, we can take an impartial overview of the transportation system and make objective safety recommendations.
The Board does not make or enforce regulations, nor do we have the authority to force other agencies to establish or enforce regulations. Simply put, we investigate accidents, conduct safety studies and make safety recommendations.
Recommendations are made to the appropriate parties involved in an accident, be they government or private industry. Although these recipients have no obligation to comply with the recommendations, historically, over 82 per cent of our recommendations have been accepted and adopted by the recipients. The NTSB is the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. Because of our high profile, most people are shocked to learn that we have only 370 employees and conduct our work at an annual cost of about 16 cents a citizen.
What have the American people gotten for that modest investment? I like to think we’ve played a major part in the development of the safest transportation system in the world. And we can cite concrete examples of safety improvements that resulted from our recommendations.
• NTSB recommendations led to smoke detectors in airplane lavatories, floor level lighting strips to lead passengers to emergency exits, anti-collision systems and ground proximity warning devices.
• It was a Safety Board study in late 1996 that began the recent national debate on the safety of air bags for children and small adults.
• It was the NTSB that spurred improvements in school bus construction standards. And,
• Board recommendations have improved passenger car safety in the railroad industry by recommending that trains be equipped with emergency signage, safety placards and portable lighting.
We have also improved the safety of large ocean-going cruise ships. As a result of our investigations and recommendations, cruise ships are required to have fixed automatic sprinkler systems, fixed automatic smoke detection systems, and low-location lighting systems by specified dates. Also, spaces containing combustibles, including accommodation and service areas, such as laundries, are not permitted to have direct access to stairway enclosures.
The Safety Board’s Office of Marine Safety consists of eleven investigators who have extensive experience in the commercial marine industry, U. S. Coast Guard and the U. S. Navy. These investigators include licensed master mariners, licensed engineers, naval architects, and human performance and survival factors specialists.
The Safety Board has the authority to investigate marine accidents involving any commercial vessel – whether domestic or foreign – in U. S. waters, or U. S. commercial vessels in international waters. We can investigate a marine accident in one of several ways – either independently of the Coast Guard, or jointly with the Coast Guard, or by delegation to the Coast Guard. In "joint investigations," the Safety Board joins with the Coast Guard to gather facts and take testimony from witnesses to avoid duplication of effort; however, the Safety Board makes its analysis and recommendations independently of the Coast Guard.
Because the Safety Board is a small agency, we use what we call the party system during investigations. This is very important to all of you in this room. Parties are designated because they have special knowledge – such as an owner’s representative, who may be a member of PVA – or provide technical expertise or resources that can assist the Board in the development of factual information. Parties are also encouraged to submit their findings, conclusions and recommendations for the Safety Board’s consideration. Party representatives must be suitably qualified technical employees who do not occupy legal positions. Parties cannot be represented by any person who also represents claimants or insurers.
By using the party system, we get the benefit of their cumulative expertise and knowledge. We can also work together to address the important safety issues in an accident. As with other organizations and associations, I believe that PVA members can provide us with useful information and familiarize us with operating practices and trends in the various sectors of the marine industry, if needed during our investigations.
I would like to talk about a recent marine accident investigation that highlighted several safety issues. I want to make it clear that there is certainly no intent to embarrass anyone in the marine industry by discussing this accident. I only mention it because it is important that we all learn the important lessons provided.
I’m sure you all remember the frightening accident when the Liberian freighter Bright Field struck the Poydras Street wharf, Riverwalk Marketplace, and New Orleans Hilton Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 14, 1996. During our investigation of this accident, investigators learned that the Bright Field was downbound in the Lower Mississippi River with a cargo of corn enroute for the sea. As the ship passed under the Crescent City Connection Bridges, the vessel pilot began maneuvering the ship toward the left descending bank near the Riverwalk Marketplace shopping mall to facilitate the turn around Algiers Point.
At about this time, the main propulsion engine No. 1 lubricating oil pump lost pressure. When the engine power dropped, the ship lost its ability to maneuver in the river current and continued to veer toward the left descending bank. Because of the time required to restore main engine rpm – about 2 minutes – the ship could not avoid striking the structures along the riverbank. Sixty-two persons in the Riverwalk complex or on board gaming or excursion vessels moored alongside the wharf sustained injuries.
Earlier this month, we issued our final report on this major investigation. The issues addressed included:
1. The adequacy of the ship’s main engine and automation systems.
2. The adequacy of port risk assessment for activities within the Port of New Orleans.
3. The adequacy of actions of pilot and crew during the emergency,
communications, and toxicological testing of the Bright Field crew.
4. The adequacy of the emergency preparedness and evacuation plans of the vessels moored in the Poydras Street wharf area.
The Safety Board concluded that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of Clearsky Shipping Company to adequately manage and oversee the maintenance of the engineering plant aboard the Bright Field, with the result that the vessel temporarily lost power while navigating a high-risk area of the Mississippi River. Contributing to the amount of property damage and the number and types of injuries sustained during the accident was the failure of the U. S. Coast Guard, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, and International RiverCenter, Inc., to adequately assess, manage, or mitigate the risks associated with locating unprotected commercial enterprises in areas vulnerable to vessel strikes.
This major Safety Board report resulted in 30 recommendations issued to 10 organizations to make improvements in these areas.
One of the issues addressed the lack of formal training for non-operating crew members on two passenger vessels that were almost struck by the runaway freighter. Non-operating crew members on the gaming vessel, The Queen of New Orleans, with 637 passengers and crew onboard, had not participated in emergency drills and only received safety briefings from those who had participated in the drills. The non-operating crew on an excursion vessel, The Creole Queen, with 190 passengers and crew onboard, did not distribute lifejackets or assist passengers because they had not participated in drills when the vessel was moored and were not aware of their responsibilities at the dock. As a result, three people onboard fell into the water without the benefit of a lifejacket and one of them sustained serious injuries.
As many of you may recall, the Safety Board addressed the training of the non-operating crew during our investigation of the fire aboard the small passenger vessel Argo Commodore on December 3, 1994, in San Francisco Bay, California. We issued a recommendation to the Passenger Vessel Association to:
Develop and provide to your members crew drills for on-board crew emergency procedures/standards that include pre-incident planning for a variety of shipboard emergencies, including fires, and the development of crew resources for proper response to the emergency without compromising passenger safety. We placed this recommendation in a "Closed - Acceptable Action" status.
I commend the PVA for publishing a Training Manual for Passenger Vessel Safety, which includes a "Non-marine Crew Training" section that outlines a comprehensive training program for non-operating crew members. The manual recognizes that non-operating crew members may be the first persons on scene during an emergency and need to be properly trained to assist passengers.
We have built on that foundation you laid. As a result of the Bright Field accident, a recommendation was issued to New Orleans Paddlewheels, Inc. that stated: In accordance with the guidance published by the Passenger Vessel Association, require that non-operating crew members on all your vessels participate in formal emergency training and drills in the proper handling of emergencies that have the potential to affect the persons in their charge. Also, we asked the company to recommend that it maintain written records to verify non-operating crew proficiency levels and skill retention.
Since New Orleans Paddlewheels, Inc. is a member of the PVA, the guidance provided in the PVA manual would be one source it could use to help establish a training program that would include non operating crew members. The Safety Board appreciates PVA’s support on this important issue by encouraging its members to implement training programs for their crew members so that they can effectively assist in an emergency onboard their vessels.
As I mentioned earlier, we have made many improvements in marine safety and there are still safety issues that need to be addressed as a result of recommendations made to the U. S. Coast Guard and industry. Among them are lifesaving equipment, communications and crew emergency training for the operating and non-operating crew. The passenger vessel industry is a growing and thriving sector of the national maritime industry in which the PVA is a key player. While your industry grows on the one hand, and Coast Guard resources shrink due to budgetary constraints on the other, there is a need to maintain a safety oversight of the industry.
We look forward to working with you to meet this need through intelligent use of our mutual expertise and resources. As more and more large, high-density passenger vessels are built – such as casino boats that can carry as many as 2500 passengers – clearly the measures to maintain passenger safety levels need to be proportionately increased and re-evaluated. Similarly, the growth of high speed, light-weight passenger ferries brings with it unique safety considerations that need to be addressed.
Thank you for the opportunity to attend this conference and address you today. By developing the Training Manual for Passenger Vessel Safety, the PVA has demonstrated its commitment to improve the safety of the domestic passenger vessel fleet. This is a welcome industry initiative. Please continue the good work of maintaining safety and I wish you a very safe and successful year.