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Remarks before the International Symposium on Family & Victim Assistance for Transportation Disasters, Arlington, Virginia
Jim Hall
International Symposium on Family & Victim Assistance for Transportation Disasters, Arlington, Virginia

Thank you for that kind introduction, Peter. I want to add my thanks to Continental Airlines for allowing us to use their video - it reminds us all of why we are here and puts our task into proper perspective.

I also want to welcome each of you to our symposium and to our nation's capital. There are more than 500 of you, from over 30 different countries, representing various segments of the transportation industry; government, emergency response, support, and relief agencies; and family members - all dedicated to achieving the same objective - improving the way in which we deal with victims and their families. With your active participation, this symposium promises to be informative, enlightening, and rewarding.

By your presence here, you exemplify the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, our third President, who once said that "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." It seems to me that sentiment holds true for all of us who provide some service to the public - whether it is rendered by a government agency or some other entity. Certainly, I believe that Jefferson's comments effectively sum up the goal and purpose of the National Transportation Safety Board.

As most of you know, the NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates all aviation accidents and all major accidents in the surface modes - marine, highway, railroad, and pipeline. We also conduct safety studies on issues of national significance, such as personal watercraft safety or operator fatigue. From these investigations and studies, the Board makes recommendations to prevent similar accidents from occurring.

I have been fortunate to be the agency's Chairman for the past four years. During that time, I have seen the professionalism and dedication that our investigators and staff bring to their responsibilities. They care about the job they are doing and strive to do it well, because they understand the importance of getting it right. I believe we have brought that same commitment to our family assistance mission.

Shortly after becoming NTSB Chairman in 1994, I became personally aware of the need for such assistance. During an aviation accident public hearing I chaired, numerous family members related their experiences to me. They told me of continuous busy signals from the airline's 800 accident information number, the lack of information, untimely notification, misidentified remains, personal effects being mishandled, unidentified remains not being handled with dignity, and the use of confidential information obtained during the grieving process in the litigation that inevitably followed. In short, at a time when they most needed guidance, assistance, and compassion, they felt abandoned and, in some cases, abused.

Later, after meeting with family members from nine different aviation accidents and various industry representatives during two groundbreaking sessions, I learned that these feelings were not unique; they were shared by family members from almost every other accident.

This sad truth was further confirmed during a public meeting of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security when I and the other commissioners heard story after tragic story from family members. I want to share two of them with you:

  • The sister of a passenger onboard a commuter airline that crashed in 1994, said that "phone calls to the airline came with no information. For 18 hours, our family spent time receiving busy signals and being put on hold for hours at a time. The next morning, confirmation was received that he was on that flight. Two weeks after the accident, my family was told it would be four to six weeks before we received any remains. Two days later, we received a call saying that we would have the remains in 24 hours. Following the funeral, the calls to the airline and the coroner's office continued. We wanted my brother's personal belongings and we also wanted to know how he was identified. After months of being told we would receive his belongings in two weeks, the truth was discovered. The majority of belongings were incinerated during the second week of recovery. Later, we also learned that the airline had authorized a mass burial conducted without our knowledge, our consent, and at night. They did not plan on notifying the families, holding a service, and had no intention of marking the grave. We knew about the mass grave a month after the accident; the airline did not notify other families until three months later."
  • The daughter of two victims of a 1992 aviation accident, told us that "although the airport chaplain and rabbi were on call the night of the accident, we were never assisted by grief counselors or psychologists. In fact, when I went to see psychologist on my own, the airline attempted to use it against me. This tactic was also used in other cases, and in one case, the airline attempted to make a survivor look bad in front of a jury for having seen a therapist during her divorce several years earlier. On the night of the accident, there was no one speaking to us about what was going on and no one but one Red Cross volunteer who kept running in and out to offer us coffee. When an airline representative would come into the room to update the list of passengers, we could all see him doing this, but we were not allowed to see the list."

What is most disturbing and troublesome about all of these unfortunate experiences is that they did not need to happen. Our nation, following natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, has historically mobilized the resources of our communities and, when necessary, the federal government, to coordinate and facilitate assistance efforts. I came to believe that we needed an equal commitment on the part of our public and private sectors to fill this void following major transportation disasters.

In October 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act and President Clinton signed it. This act followed the President's executive memorandum the previous month that asked the Board to be the lead federal agency for coordinating federal government assets at an accident scene. The legislation, combined with the President's directive to six cabinet-level agencies requiring them to provide assistance to the NTSB at accident scenes, gave the Board the authority it needed to undertake the challenge of bringing together various federal, state, and local government agencies to better serve the victims of transportation accidents and their families.

To fulfill the task assigned to us, we created the Office of Family Affairs with a small five-member staff. We carefully sought out the best individuals with the skills and personal commitment necessary to successfully accomplish our goals. These staff members, in the last two years, have launched to eight accidents, including six aviation crashes involving aircraft from small commuter planes to large commercial airliners, a bus accident, and a cruise ship fire. Some of these were under the most arduous conditions - from sub-zero temperatures in Michigan to the tropical heat of Guam. They, like our investigators, are gone for days or weeks at a time, often with only a few hours notice.

As a result, for the first time, there is an effective coordinator on the accident scene that can integrate the major resources of the federal government and other organizations to support the efforts of local and state government agencies and the airlines to better meet the needs of the victims and their families.

Equally important, however, there is now an entity available to help these groups be more proactive, so that they and we are better prepared in advance of an accident. For example, we have worked with:

  • Nearly all domestic and international major airlines and regional carriers to assist them in developing effective emergency response/family assistance plans.
  • The state and local medical examiners and coroners to ensure that they are aware of the resources that can be brought in to help them to recover and identify victims.
  • Mental health agencies and the American Red Cross to coordinate the use of their resources. In fact, we have asked the Red Cross to serve as the third party provider for all mental health needs and to coordinate the services being offered to the families.
  • The federal, state, and local emergency management agencies so that their efforts are better coordinated with those of other agencies.
  • Funeral directors across the country who can play a critical role in assisting in victim recovery and identification efforts. We have had to call upon the Disaster Mortuary (DMORT) teams, under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services, to assist local coroners with several accidents under difficult conditions. Unfortunately, while assisting us in Guam, a DMORT member, Gerry Brockhaus, a funeral director from Nebraska, died of a heart attack.
  • Airport authorities to ensure that they address family issues in their emergency plans.
  • And, representatives of many of the family advocacy groups to ensure that we address issues they believe are of greatest importance immediately following an accident.

Many of these organizations are finding creative ways to support one another in this endeavor. And, their efforts are a true indicator of how well the legislation is working. Let me give you just a few examples:

  • In the initial hours after the Korean Air 801 accident, the Board was contacted by Tom Whalen of Condon and Forsyth, the US legal representative of Korean Air's underwriter, who immediately offered his assistance and pledged to cover expenses associated with the recovery and identification of the accident victims. He and his organization continued to help the Board resolve issues as they arose in the weeks and months after the accident.
  • Recovery of the victims of Korean Air 801 was very difficult. To assist in that effort, the Board requested dogs and handlers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While FEMA worked to get what we needed, we asked Tom Nunn, the Director of Emergency Management for Northwest Airlines, for assistance in flying the teams business class so that they could immediately go to work . Once again, Mr. Whalen came forward and agreed to cover the expenses incurred. Within hours, all of the pieces came together and three teams were on their way to Guam.
  • The Michigan State Funeral Directors Association worked with Joe Moffatt of the American Red Cross to plan a non-denominational memorial service to properly bury the unidentified remains from the Comair flight 3272, in Monroe, Michigan. He later worked with Kelly and Greg Crippin of the Crippin Funeral Home in planning a memorial burial service for the unidentified remains of the victims of a Scenic Air crash in Montrose, Colorado.

These are just a few of the cases where compassion, combined with adequate planning and coordination, have proven the success of this program. I'm sure you will hear about many more over the next few days. And, I would encourage each of you to share your successes with the other participants and my staff.

What should be obvious, is that this is not a static process. Rather it is continually evolving as we all learn more through our experiences. For instance, following the Korean Air 801 crash, it was brought to our attention that foreign carriers flying in and out of the US were not covered by the 1996 act and Korean Air did not have a plan to deal with the situation they encountered. As a result, Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 to require those carriers to file family assistance plans and fulfill the same family support requirements as domestic airlines. Not only does the Act ensure that all victims and family members will be treated equitably, regardless of the carrier they use, it also impels many carriers that may not have thought about family assistance issues to give them due consideration in their emergency response plans.

The recent crash of Swissair flight 111 proved the validity of this requirement. Swissair and its code-share partner, Delta, had a plan in place which allowed them to quickly and effectively respond to the needs of the victims' families. Notification went quickly and family members were provided information as soon as it was available. The airline also tried to anticipate the families' needs - even offering them $20,000, with no strings attached, to cover immediate expenditures. If you have read the media accounts in the aftermath of this accident, I'm sure you were struck, as I was, by the overwhelmingly positive response of the families to the airlines' efforts.

While this accident shows how much improvement there has been in the way family assistance issues are being handled, it also indicates that there is more work yet to be done. In this age of routine international travel, we must be able to quickly ascertain not only who is onboard an aircraft, but their nationality as well. The 229 passengers and crew on the Swissair flight were from 18 countries. Following the crash, our Department of State had a difficult time obtaining accurate information regarding the victims' nationalities. We hope that the enhanced passenger manifest rule adopted by the Department of Transportation will help solve the problem. The rule, which becomes effective this Thursday, requires all US and foreign airlines to collect the full name of each US citizen traveling on flights to and from the US and to request a contact name and phone number from those passengers. I hope that all carriers will use this rule to its full advantage and collect this information from all of your passengers, not just those Americans onboard.

It should be apparent to all of you that this is no longer just a US initiative. This is an endeavor that involves every country, every service agency, and every transportation-related industry around the world. As I said earlier, we all share the responsibility for ensuring the care of human life and happiness. Just last Friday, representatives of more than 160 nations, attending the assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, adopted a resolution that will lead to guidance and standards for all nations to address the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families.

As we move forward, we face many challenges. The tremendous growth in, and ever-increasing global nature of, passenger transport will require our interaction on a routine basis. Demand for our services will increase - as will the call for them to be improved. Thus far, we have focused our attention on aviation accidents. We must plan for the inevitable - that our services will be required in other modal accidents as well.

We will spend much of our time here discussing what to do and how to do it. However, I want to leave you with one thought and one that should be at the forefront of everything we do - and that is - why we do it. Simply put, we do it because it's the right thing to do. One of our Civil War generals said it best - "Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less." Ensuring that the victims of transportation accidents and their surviving family members are treated with compassion and respect is our duty and we must fulfill it.

All of you bring something to the table that can benefit and ultimately improve the family assistance program. This is one case where the audience is more important to the success of this symposium than are the presenters. It will be your efforts and participation, not ours, that will determine the success of this gathering. Thank you all for attending. I look forward to meeting all of you during these next two days, and learning more from you in the weeks and months ahead.


Jim Hall's Speeches