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Remarks to the ECAC Family Assistance Symposium, Tillin, Estonia
Jim Hall
ECAC Family Assistance Symposium, Tillin, Estonia

Thank you for inviting me to be here today to address this important organization on the work of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to assist the family members of the victims of major transportation accidents.

As most of you know, the NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates all civil aviation accidents in the United States 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 and 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 last six 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 Safety Board Chairman in 1994, I became personally aware of the need for such assistance. During a public hearing I chaired on the USAir flight 427 accident, numerous family members told me about their experiences in the aftermath of that accident.

They told me about 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 followed.  In short, at a time when they most needed guidance, assistance, and compassion, they felt abandoned and, in some cases, abused.

Later, I met with family members from nine different aviation accidents and various industry representatives and I learned that, unfortunately, the experience of the USAir flight 427 families were not unique; family members from almost every other accident had encountered the same uncaring, unfeeling bureaucracy within the aviation community.

During a public meeting of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security in 1996, the other commissioners and I heard story after tragic story from family members. I want to share just two of them with you:

  • The sister of a passenger onboard a commuter airliner that crashed in 1994 said "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. 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 psychologists 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."
Many of you may have probably heard similar stories following accidents in your countries.  What is most disturbing and troublesome about all of these experiences is that they did not have to happen. Indeed, they should not have happened.  As I continued to hear about the experiences of accident victims' families, I came to believe that we needed to do better - that we could do better - and that the families who had lost so much deserved no less.

I wanted to ensure that every accident victim's family would be treated the same way you or I would want our families treated if they found themselves in similar circumstances.  President Clinton and the Congress, after hearing from many of the same families, agreed.

In October 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act which was then signed into law by President Clinton. 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 site. The legislation, combined with the President's directive gave the Board the authority it needed to bring together various federal, state, and local government agencies to better serve the victims of transportation accidents and their families.

To carry out this task, we created the Office of Family Affairs with a small seven-member staff. We carefully recruited highly skilled and experienced individuals with the expertise and commitment necessary to successfully accomplish our goals. Over the past four years, these staff members have launched to numerous accidents, including six major aviation accidents, several rail accidents, several marine accidents, numerous bus accidents and two pipeline accidents.

There were many individuals, even some at the Safety Board, who did not believe that the Board should be involved in family assistance matters.  Many were concerned that this additional role would detract from our main mission of investigating accidents by undermining the Board's independence and making it more difficult to maintain our objectivity.

To address those concerns, we ensured that the family affairs staff was completely separate from the investigative staff.  And, the family affairs office quickly established a reputation for handling its tasks effectively while also protecting the integrity of the investigation.  Over time, the family affairs team has become an integral part of every go-team launch and our accident investigators have grown to depend on their expertise in communicating with family members and rely on their assistance throughout the investigative process.

While on scene, the Office of Family Affairs staff coordinates the efforts of the federal agencies, local and state government agencies and the airlines to better meet the needs of the victims and their families.  Their work doesn't end there.  As the investigation progresses, they keep the families informed about its status, answer questions, and help facilitate requests for assistance as appropriate.

The staff also helps the various response agencies, airlines, and airports become more proactive and better prepared before an accident occurs.  Since its inception, the Office of Family Affairs has worked with:

  • Nearly all of 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 additional resources available to them to help with victim recovery and identification.

  • The American Red Cross and other mental health agencies to coordinate the use of their resources. The American Red Cross has been designated as the non-profit organization, as required by the legislation, to coordinate family care and mental health services.

  • Airport authorities to ensure that they address family issues in their emergency plans and to train their staff to assist family members.
  • And, state emergency management agencies to incorporate family assistance into their response plans.
Through the hard work and dedication of both the Safety Board's staff and the numerous other agencies that respond to accidents, we have found innovative ways to support one another. For example:
  • Following the Korean Air 801 accident in Guam, the Board was contacted by a representative for Korean Air's underwriter, who immediately offered his assistance and pledged to cover expenses associated with the recovery and identification of accident victims.
  • 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). We then asked the Director of Emergency Management for Northwest Airlines, even though the carrier was not directly involved in the accident, for assistance in flying the teams in business class so that they could go to work as soon as they arrived. Within hours, all of the pieces were in place and the three teams were on their way to Guam.
  • The Michigan State Funeral Directors Association worked closely with the American Red Cross to plan a non-denominational memorial service to properly bury the unidentified remains from Comair flight 3272, in Monroe, Michigan.
  • And, in the aftermath of the Alaska Air flight 261 crash off the coast of California, the Safety Board coordinated the efforts of 73 different agencies that provided much needed support to the victims' family members.
As you can see, this isn't a static process. Rather it is continually evolving - and improving - as we all learn how to more effectively assist and support accident victims' families.  For instance, following the crash of Korean Air 801, we learned that foreign air carriers flying in and out of the United States were not covered by the 1996 legislation which required all domestic airlines to have a plan in place, and on file with the U.S. Department of Transportation, to efficiently respond to such tragedies.  As a result, Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 that requires foreign carriers to develop family assistance plans and fulfill the same requirements as U.S. domestic airlines.

Together, the 1996 and 1997 acts ensure that all victims and their families will be treated fairly and equally regardless of the carrier they use.  And, they also have required many carriers that may not have previously thought about family assistance issues to actively consider them in their planning.  We may soon see similar requirements for other modes of transportation as well.  Currently, there is legislation pending in Congress to require passenger railroad in the United States to establish family assistance plans.

The 1997 crash of Swissair flight 111 validated why the Foreign Air Carrier Act was necessary.  Because Swissair and its code-share partner, Delta, had a plan in place, they were able to quickly and effectively respond to the family members' needs. Next-of-kin notification was efficient and family members received up-to-date information as soon as it was available.

The airline also tried to anticipate the families' needs - including offering them $20,000, with no strings attached, to cover their immediate expenses.  Last year, we saw similar results following the EgyptAir flight 990 crash.  And, if you read the press accounts following the Concorde crash, you saw that Air France received numerous laudatory comments from the victims' families for their compassionate response.

The response from these carriers shows how much improvement there has been in how families are treated following aviation disasters.  However, there is still more work to be done.  As this conference shows, family assistance is no longer just an U.S. initiative.  It is a global issue.  It is an endeavor in which every country, every service agency, and every transportation-related industry around the world should be involved.

Many challenges undoubtedly await us. The tremendous growth in, and increasingly global nature of, passenger transport will require all of us to work together, to share lessons learned, and to ensure that everyone travels on our transportation systems and their families receive the assistance and support that they may require following an accident.

In closing, I want to leave you with one thought - ensuring that the victims of transportation accidents and their surviving family members are treated with compassion and respect is not only our duty and responsibility - it is the right thing to do - as government officials, as members of the transportation community, and as fellow human beings.