Statement of Jim Hall
Former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board
At the NTSB Family Assistance Conference: Promoting an International Approach for the Transportation Industry
Good Morning Chairman Hersman, Members of the Board and attendees. I am honored to be included on this 15th anniversary of the passage of the family assistance act. This event is a tribute to family members, the NTSB, and those in industry and government who have worked over the past 15 years to implement and perfect this critical, and now world-wide, program. What I would like to do is give some of the early history from my perspective on why this act was needed and how it became law.
When a family member would call the NTSB we used respond on an ad hoc basis. Investigators often spoke with family members sharing information giving progress reports but it was a process initiated by the individual affected –there was no institutional response.
It wasn’t until after the 1994 accidents involving American Eagle in Roselawn, Indiana, and USAir near Pittsburgh that I became aware of family members gathering together demanding more accountability and more transparency in the aftermath of an accident. As a group, the Pittsburgh families requested that I provide special seating at the hearing, copies of docket material, a briefing on the status of the investigation, and a private tour of the hangar where the wreckage was stored. The NTSB had never considered such requests and frankly there was considerable concern within the agency that dealing directly with family members would be a slippery slope and ultimately a damaging move by the agency. The thoughts were that any distraction – and family assistance was viewed as a distraction – would only serve to weaken the NTSB core mission.
The accidents in Roselawn and Pittsburg however highlighted for me that something had to be done, even though I shared many of the concerns about the NTSB taking on a family assistance role. I did not want to do anything that would undercut the agency’s mandate of probable cause determination and issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. These are the key work products of the agency and if they were weakened the agency would be damaged.
In January of 1995, after the public hearing on the Pittsburg 427 accident, I asked Peter Goelz to take charge of addressing this issue for the NTSB and to help me develop our response . Peter and I met with Transportation Secretary Federico Pena in February 1995 and expressed concerns that something clearly needed to be done. We were unsure which agency should take the lead and we actually suggested that his office consider taking on the responsibility. Over the next months the NTSB and Transportation Department staffs worked together, meeting with family members, documenting concerns, and looking at how other organizations and agencies handled these types of issues. In June 1995, Secretary Pena and I convened a meeting at the NSTB with family members and survivors from major accidents to examine the issues surrounding the treatment of family members. In August 1995, we followed up with a meeting with representatives of 11 major air carriers, ATA and Amtrak, where members of the newly-formed National Air Disaster Alliance outlined their concerns.
The meeting went well, but unfortunately, the industry took little action and seemed resistant to formalizing any approach. We continued meeting and documenting what needed to be done and were probably moving toward implementing a voluntary approach when a two deadly accidents changed the landscape forever: in May 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in Florida and in July 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island.
This matter also became personal – I had two friends who lost their lives on Flight 592 – a young woman named Angie Greene who worked with me in Governor McWherter’s office In Nashville, and a young man named Rafael Lameda whom I had trained as an advanceman for Vice President Gore.
For the ValuJet accident I assigned the NTSB Office of Government Affairs the responsibility of responding to family needs at the accident site and sent Peter Goelz on scene to try to informally assist—remember we had no authority to be involved in family assistance. What became profoundly clear was that whatever concerns we had about NTSB involvement with family members, the overriding issue was the families’ desire and need to hear timely information directly from the agency in charge of finding out what caused the accident. Family members deserved to get the information about the accident and about their loved ones directly from agency in charge –the NTSB. Peter set up twice daily family briefings, he called in first responders and set up a critical liaison with the medical examiner (ValuJet, by the way, was the first commercial aviation accident where DNA was used to help identify loved ones). Peter also arranged for a memorial service held near the accident site. The core responsibilities of what was to become the Office of Family Assistance had been identified.
After the ValuJet accident I realized that this was a task that almost certainly had to be done by the NTSB. It became apparent that the questions being asked and the information requested could only come from the NTSB. We were the investigative authority with the answers – any filtering of our message through others like the Red Cross or DOT would simply not work.
After ValuJet, family members were active not only with the NTSB but also with the Congress. In June 1996, the House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing regarding the treatment of families after airline accidents. The testimony from the families was compelling and the committee appeared ready to move forward.
Less than a month after that hearing the TWA flight 800 accident occurred off East Moriches, Long Island. The evening after the TWA accident, approximately 400 family members gathered at a local hotel. Again I sent Peter Goelz to the scene to handle both public and family affairs and he was asked to brief the families on the investigative process. The number of family members quickly rose to over 1,000, and the process was chaotic and at times out of control as dozens of agencies tried to assist. President Clinton sent his top crisis aide, FEMA Director James Lee Witt, to the evaluate the situation.
Witt recommended to the President that the NTSB be given the overall responsibility for assisting and briefing the families. And the Prsident did just that when he and Mrs. Clinton traveled to New York to with family members.
As you will recall, the NTSB had no family affairs staff at that time, so FEMA, the Departments of Defense and State, and the Coast Guard loaned staff to assist us. We also received invaluable advice from family member Hans Ephaimson. We began simultaneously translating briefings, and extensive one-on-one meetings with family members continued until August , when, with roughly 30 victims still unrecovered, the remaining family members were encouraged to return home to a more supportive environment. Shortly thereafter the on-scene family assistance operations ceased. A follow-up network, including an 800 number, was put in place for family members’ use. The NTSB also kept family members advised of on-going activities during the investigative process, either by letter or FAX or directly by phone.
In September 1996, President Clinton issued a directive naming the NTSB as the coordinator of federal services of victims of transportation accidents, and in October he signed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 which we are here today to acknowledge.
As chairman of the NTSB , I did not seek the responsibility of Family Assistance for the NTSB But I came to believe that the NTSB was absolutely the right agency to take on this most important assignment And it has been the efforts of the Board’s Family Assistance staff over the years that has made this difficult task a success for the NTSB.
In these times of political adversity, government is often criticized. We hear the political cliché that the Government can’t solve the problem because government is the problem. Well, the NTSB’s Family Assistance program stands as a clear example that on occasion government can and will step in and do good. For that, the staff of the Family Assistance deserves our thanks, as does Chairman Hersman, whose support of Family Assistance both when she a senior staffer on Capitol Hill and as a member and Chairman of the NTSB, has kept the mission vibrant.
Again, it was a pleasure to be here today and I thank you for inviting me and allowing me to speak.