Remarks of Debbie Hersman
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
Lexington Division of Police Awards Banquet
November 1, 2006
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this very special event to honor some of the heroes who rose to the occasion when tragedy struck Lexington on August 27, 2006. Chief Beatty recognized the families in his welcome this evening and that is a theme that runs through my speech. I would like to begin my remarks by noting something about family, my family. Kentucky holds a special place in my heart. As many of you may know, my husband’s family has deep roots in the Lexington community, his parents grew up here and went to Henry Clay High School and on to UK and one of his grandfathers was the Dean of the Journalism School at UK. Until we had children of our own, we spent our Christmas holidays in Lexington. And, of course, after eighteen years with the Plummer family, I have acquired one of their most notable traits—when it’s basketball season, I bleed blue and white.
I have many memories of time spent with relatives here, but this summer I came to know a different family in Lexington. The morning of August 27th looked to be the beginning of a quiet summer Sunday until the message came across my pager that there had been an airplane crash. I learned that the accident occurred at Bluegrass Airport and there were many suspected fatalities. News of an accident is never easy to hear. But when the worst civil aviation accident in almost five years involves a community that is dear to you, the sadness is a little closer to your heart.
Let me give you a little background about the NTSB and why we came to Lexington; the National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States, as well as significant accidents in other modes of transportation, including railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline. After we investigate each accident, we determine the probable cause of the accident and if warranted, make recommendations to government agencies, states, operators, manufacturers, and industry groups about how safety may be improved to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Since 1967 when the NTSB was created, we have investigated 124, 000 aviation accidents, about 2,000 every year, ranging from small private aircraft to jumbo jets and even space transportation. Although the public is most familiar with the NTSB’s investigations in aviation, we also investigate scores of surface transportation accidents each year and as most of the personnel in this room know, 95% of our transportation fatalities occur on our nation’s highway like many public servants in this room, our investigative “go-teams” are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our investigators travel throughout the country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant accidents and develop factual records and safety recommendations.
Of course, we don’t do our investigations in a vacuum, or without the partnership of many other organizations. The NTSB does not carry out rescue operations, so the first critical hours after any accident belongs to the local police and fire departments, and in many aviation accidents, the airport rescue and firefighting teams. Not only are their actions critical to the welfare of any accident survivors, their response in preserving the accident scene as completely as possible is crucial for the subsequent investigation that will rely on a precise documentation of on-scene evidence.
The first indication I had of how magnificently Lexington would respond to this plane crash came when I arrived on scene and I was briefed about the rescue of one of the pilots of Flight 5191. They told me about the three responders from the Lexington Division of Police and Bluegrass Airport who were the first on the scene. Bryan Jared, James Maupin, and Jon Sallee, realized that one of the pilots of the aircraft was still alive, and concluded immediately that there was no time to wait for an ambulance or on firefighting operations. They pulled the survivor from the still-burning wreckage and raced him to the hospital. Medical professionals often refer to the first sixty minutes after an accident as the “golden hour”, it’s not hard to imagine that their quick thinking and decisive action is why the pilot is alive today. Their selfless act of putting the life of another human being ahead of their own safety is something that we might have imagined ourselves doing for a member of our family, but they did it for a complete stranger. That is the finest example of public service.
My first inkling of the kind of community support we would receive in Lexington came when I arrived at the airport. The clerk, who helped us secure rental cars, thanked me for being there and said she would keep our investigative team in her prayers.
As I arrived at the accident scene, I was struck, as I have been so many times before, by the lush beauty of the Bluegrass State. But this time the verdant, rolling hills were merely an incongruent backdrop to the devastating wreckage of Flight 5191. The accident had happened just hours earlier, and already the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were dispensing water, food and encouragement to all of the responders on scene that hot August day. Later, Home Depot arrived on scene with rope, gloves and other items needed by the many investigators and responders who were by then flooding the accident scene.
One of the first things I noticed at the accident site was the obvious commitment exhibited by many responders and investigators. There exuded from all of them a quiet confidence that they would do with excellence what they are trained to do, and they would do it as part of a cooperative effort for the good of the community. This cooperative spirit was a golden thread that ran through all phases of the on-scene efforts and through all of the various organizations represented there, whether federal, state, or local. They included the Lexington Division of Police, the Lexington Fire Department, the State Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, the Fayette County Sheriff, the Kentucky State Police, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, the Fayette County Coroner’s Office, the Kentucky Coroners and Medical Examiner Mass Fatality Team, , the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and many local businesses.
It was very apparent that the folks from these organizations were there, not for the glory of their particular organization, but for the victims, their families, the citizens of Lexington, and anyone who will fly the skies in the future. Chief Beatty, I thank you and the leaders of all these organizations for setting the tone of cooperation that made our task so much easier. In my time at the Board, I cannot recall an accident scene that was managed more professionally than Comair 5191.
And then there was the care and response to the victims’ families. In 1996, after a string of major aviation disasters in which victims’ families spoke out that they felt pushed aside after the accident, mobbed by the media, and were provided very little information. Congress asked the NTSB to create a special team whose sole job is to coordinate and lead efforts to provide immediate care for the families of the victims of an aviation accident. Our small but effective Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA) team marks its tenth anniversary this year. They arrived in Lexington with our go-team, and immediately set to work organizing the effort to help the families of the victims, whom they knew would be arriving in Lexington within hours.
As with the investigation at the accident scene, our TDA team enjoyed the assistance and cooperative spirit of other groups and the greater Lexington community. The Campbell House opened its doors to the victims’ families as they arrived over the next few days, providing rooms, food, telephones, and meeting space for the families to use during this extraordinarily painful time.
The Lexington Police remained a steady presence at the accident site and at other locations. Chief Beatty and Sheriff Witt coordinated their agencies’ manpower at multiple locations, such as the Campbell House, the accident scene, at press conferences, and even at the hotel where the NTSB team lodged. Debra Robinson distributed white ribbons for family members to wear as a visible sign of respect for their loved ones when they visited the accident site and later when they attended the memorial service. And I know that the family members won’t forget the day they visited the scene or the sight of the Lexington police officers, standing at attention in a line around the perimeter of the accident site. Their simple solemn attention expressed, with no words but with tremendous effect, the respect we all felt for the victims and the grief we all shared with those most personally affected by this accident.
I’ve spent the last couple of minutes telling you about the remarkable efforts of the organizations whose job it is to respond to disasters such as this accident. As you can tell, I was impressed by the work done by all of them. But what touched me even more was the response by the community of Lexington, by ordinary citizens who, for one reason or another, felt the call to offer help in some way. Many of these efforts may have seemed small to them, but their impact was huge.
I am talking about the many, many people who stopped members of our team and me -- on the streets, in restaurants, in stores, at the airport – just to tell us they thought we were doing a good job and to thank us for being there. In Washington, we are among thousands of Federal government bureaucrats under the scrutiny of the White House and Congress, not to mention the American taxpayers – we’re just not used to receiving so many unsolicited compliments. We all appreciated your kind southern hospitality.
I am talking about the people in Lexington who made special accommodations that greatly helped the NTSB team, like the staff at the Homewood Suites where our team lodged for several days, the Murty family whose farm was the site of the accident, and even the local news media who respected our need to provide information to the victims’ families first.
I am also talking about the people who lined the streets of Lexington to show their respect to the victims’ families as they traveled from the Campbell House to the accident scene. The specter of that quiet, loving support was tremendously moving and spoke volumes about the spirit of community in Lexington, Kentucky.
And finally, I must mention the victims’ families. The people who lost their loved ones, whose lives were turned upside down on August 27, even in their pain, they seemed to find room in their broken hearts to comfort one another. Over and over again, our team at the Campbell House witnessed family members reach past their own acute heartache to rescue, with a hug or a shoulder to cry on, a fellow grieving family member whose emotional pain overwhelmed them. Foremost in our minds as we work to complete our investigation, are the victims and their family members. The lessons learned from this tragedy must be used to prevent a similar accident from occurring.
In the days immediately following the accident, the NTSB received a lion’s share of attention. But the NTSB had only one piece of this experience. Three days after the accident, as I was standing on the hill watching the wrecked and burned-out fuselage being lifted from the accident site to be taken to storage, I was overcome by the realization that when 50 people met tragedy unexpectedly that quiet Sunday morning, hundreds of people stopped whatever they were doing to rescue, to assist, to investigate, to clean up, and thousands started to support, to pray, and yes, to grieve. So many lives were touched by the loss of 49 precious souls; the entire community was in pain. This simple realization strengthened my faith in humanity.
As human beings living together on this earth, we make mistakes, we disagree, and sometimes we even hurt each other. But in the end, we do care for one another, and when tragedy strikes one of us or a few of us, many of us respond to the pain. Lexington reminded me, and I think the nation, that we are all part of a larger family.
Lexington, thank you for sharing with all of us your extraordinary community spirit.