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Testimony Before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, House of Representatives, Regarding the Treatment of Families After Airline Accidents, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
House of Representatives, Testimony Before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, Regarding the Treatment of Families After Airline Accidents, Washington, DC

Good morning Chairman Duncan and Members of the Subcommittee. I am pleased to provide testimony regarding the treatment of families after airline accidents. Mr. Chairman, the testimony I am presenting are my personal views, and do not reflect a Board position.

The issue of how family members of victims of airline accidents are treated and responded to is a timely one. The recent tragic crash of ValuJet flight 592 brought home to the NTSB just how important a prompt, compassionate and truthful response is to family members and friends who have lost loved ones suddenly and violently. The NTSB has seen a dramatic change in the nature of major aircraft accidents. The combination of a litigious society, aggressive 24-hour news coverage, and perhaps a mistrust of authority all contribute to a very challenging environment surrounding major accidents.

Family members are demanding more accountability and more services in the aftermath of an accident. I believe that most of these demands are just common sense. Your next panel of witnesses will, I am sure, ably articulate the problems family members have faced and the solutions they feel need to be implemented. I will confine my testimony to the experiences of the NTSB over the past 1 1/2 years.

As a member of the NTSB, I have visited the scene of three major, non-survivable airline crashes: American Eagle flight 4184, which crashed and killed 68 in Roselawn, Indiana, on October 31, 1994; USAir flight 427, which crashed and killed 132 just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 8, 1994; and last week I went to the Florida Everglades and the scene of the ValuJet flight 592 accident, which killed all 110 aboard.

If I could comment personally for one moment. I had two friends from Tennessee who lost their lives on flight 592. One -- a vibrant young woman named Angie Greene from Nashville worked with me in Governor Ned McWherter's office. She was a committed young woman, devoted to her family and friends. The other was Rafael Lameda from Cookeville. A young father of two, Rafael was active in politics and worked on advance for Vice President Gore. A native of Venezuela, he loved this country and its political process. As I attended their memorial services and met with their families, I recommitted myself to ensuring that all family members of these tragic events are treated with respect, with compassion, and with truth. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.

While the NTSB has always responded to individual family member's requests for information, the public hearing on USAir flight 427 was the first time we were asked to respond to an organized group of family members. On the first day of the hearing, the family members filed into the meeting room and took seats. Many held pictures of loved ones who had perished in the crash, and most wore buttons identifying themselves as members of the newly-formed Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League. Their presence at the hearing was a new phenomena for the NTSB -- an organized group asking to be recognized and treated as a group. In the past, family members and survivors had contacted the Board and had their requests handled on a case by case basis.

In Pittsburgh, the family member requests were straightforward -- requesting reserved seating at the Board's public hearing, copies of factual reports and docket material, a briefing on the status of the investigation, and a private tour of the hangar where the wreckage of flight 427 had been laid out and stored. The requests generated considerable debate within the NTSB about the appropriate level of agency response. Some argued that since the hearing was open to the public, preferential treatment of family members was unnecessary and counterproductive. Further arguments were made that the hearing was highly technical in nature, and some expressed concern that dealing with family members in this manner was outside our mission of accident investigation and probable cause determination.

Let me tell you what I thought then and what I believe today. The family members of that accident and of every tragic transportation accident are taxpayers. They pay my salary and they pay for the investigative work of the NTSB. Within reason and within the resources available to us, I believe we must be responsive. It is the right thing to do. I also believe that the power of the NTSB comes, to a great degree, from the public's confidence in our mission. The NTSB relies on the public's belief that each and every investigation we undertake will be completed with the highest degree of technical competence and integrity. We rely on the public's support of our recommendations to improve safety. It is my belief that when the public makes reasonable requests of its officials, we ought to respond. It's that simple.

Responding affirmatively seemed to open a flood gate of emotion and complaints. The issues raised by the family members to me in Pittsburgh were so disturbing that upon my return to Washington, D. C., I called Transportation Secretary Federico Peña and asked to meet with him on this matter. On February 1, 1995, Secretary Peña and I met and agreed that many of the issues and concerns raised by family members deserved further examination. We agreed that we would work together exploring these concerns and try to develop a strategy to ensure that the feelings of mistreatment would not be repeated.

Over the next three months, DOT and NTSB staff worked together researching the issues and documenting the treatment of family members at other major accidents. I returned to Pittsburgh in April and met with a large group of family members and, for those who had not already done so, again invited the families to the hangar where the wreckage was stored.

Flight 427 was an extraordinarily destructive accident and some family members received no remains to bring home and bury. Visiting the hangar, I was told, helped bring closure for many. The NTSB received many compliments from those family members who went on the two solemn visits to the hangar.

In June 1995, Secretary Peña and I convened a meeting at the NTSB with family members and survivors from major accidents. The purpose of our meeting was to list and examine the critical issues surrounding the treatment of family members. Although I am sure the family members will also submit a copy of this working document for the record, I will also be attaching it to my remarks. This list of 14 issues, nine of which were discussed in depth, represents the concerns, the problems, and the mistakes family members confronted at major airline accidents. It is important reading.

In August 1995, Secretary Peña and I chaired a meeting with representatives of 11 major air carriers, ATA and Amtrak, as a followup to the June meeting with family members. At this meeting members of the newly-formed National Air Disaster Alliance made a presentation focusing on the issues examined in depth at the June meeting. ATA agreed then to coordinate the industry response and to report back on next steps. Since that time, ATA has met on this issue but we have received no plan or comprehensive response. Individual airlines, I would point out, have reached out to family members and to the NTSB for assistance, but to our knowledge the questions raised by family members remain unanswered by the industry as a whole.

The NTSB, however, decided that there were some things that we could do that might help. First, we developed a brochure written for family members that describes the accident investigation process, the roles of the various governmental agencies, and the likely time frame that the investigation falls within. A copy of that brochure is attached for your information.

Secondly, I assigned the NTSB Office of Government Affairs the responsibility of responding to family needs at the accident site.

The recent tragic ValuJet accident in Miami highlighted how far we have come, but more needs to be done.

On Saturday evening, only hours after the crash, NTSB staff contacted the ValuJet persons responsible for handling family members and reviewed with them the key points identified by previous family members. On Sunday afternoon, the NTSB began twice daily private briefings for family members. The ValuJet accident was the most challenging on scene investigation in our agency's history, and conveying the destruction of the impact, the remoteness of the site, and the difficulty of the recovery to family members was critical.

Morning briefings started at 9:00 a.m. and generally lasted two hours. Evening briefings began at 8:00 p.m. and often did not conclude until well after midnight. Because of the extraordinary media coverage given to this accident, family members needed to hear the facts from the NTSB -- no one else would do. Because the NTSB is in charge of the accident investigation and the accident site, and is the sole spokesman to the media, the family members need to hear first from us.

In Miami, NTSB staff invited fire and rescue personnel to discuss with the family members the search and rescue attempts, and the medical examiner to discuss the identification of remains. We also called on other resources to assist the families in dealing with this terrible situation. On the Wednesday following the accident, the NTSB, in conjunction with Dade County Fire and Rescue, arranged for a memorial service to be held adjacent to the actual accident site in the Everglades. Over 100 family members made the two-hour trip to the site. This week, I will be writing to each of the family members updating them on our investigation and further outlining NTSB responsibilities.

I believe we did a better job for relatives of victims at this accident, but I believe we can all still do better. For example, I do not know how well family members were handled if they did not come to Miami. We all need to make sure that all family members get accurate information. I believe that every Part 121 and Part 135 airline should be required to have an in-depth plan in place should they experience an accident. This plan should be reviewed annually to ensure that it is truly responsive to the needs of families. Secondly, I believe that joint efforts should be made to address the issues raised by family members at our June 20, 1995 meeting.

Mr. Chairman, you and the Committee will shortly be hearing from a number of family members, and I am sure they will share with you some of the very troubling treatment they and others, unfortunately, have received. This treatment, however unintentional, is unacceptable. As I stated previously, because of the litigious society, aggressive news coverage, and a mistrust of authority, the traditional approach is no longer adequate to address the needs and concerns of family members. They need to know there is a single, independent source for information. Mr. Chairman, nothing will be accomplished unless government, industry and helping services such as the American Red Cross work together. Although to date we have been unsuccessful at having industry take a comprehensive look into this issue, perhaps now, with the support of Congress, we can reach that goal. Family members deserve humane treatment and I stand ready to work with you, with family members, and with the industry to find a solution.

That completes my statement, and I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.


Jim Hall