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Shutdown stymies NTSB investigations into fatal crashes, prompting safety fears

“People may die unnecessarily because they are unable to carry out their duties,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Image: Southwest Airlines engine
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of a Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport on April 17.NTSB via EPA file

Five children on their way to Disney World in Florida were killed in a highway accident this month, making national headlines and raising concerns about the condition of the guardrails involved. Despite the attention, however, state investigators have been left to examine that case without the aid of federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

That's because 366 of the NTSB's 397 employees are currently furloughed due to the longest government shutdown in American history, now in its fourth week.

As of Thursday, there were 14 accidents that the NTSB would normally have investigated but couldn’t because of the shutdown: 10 plane crashes, one boat crash, two railway crashes and one major highway accident. Twenty-five people were killed and 17 injured in those accidents.

“People may die unnecessarily because they are unable to carry out their duties,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said of NTSB investigators.

Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during a hearing in Washington on Oct. 11, 2017.
Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during a hearing in Washington on Oct. 11, 2017.Olivier Douliery / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

“We don’t know what conclusion they would have come to or if they could have saved more lives by starting or finishing an investigation,” the chairman said. “They can’t even start — they’re just keeping a list.”

The NTSB oversees investigations into civil transportation accidents across the country, whether aviation, railroad, ship or marine, as well as highway crashes and pipeline incidents. The recommendations it makes informs lawmakers and numerous agencies on necessary safety protocols.

The board said it would pick up the investigations into the 14 accidents as soon as it receives funding, but experts say that important evidence could be lost in the meantime and future investigations stymied by the backlog of work.

“The main thing that we’re losing is perishable evidence that could be examined that we want to take a look at right after an accident happens: things like witnesses to be interviewed or tire marks in the roadway that can be erased with time,” said David Mayer, the CEO of Washington’s Metrorail Safety Commission, who previously served as the managing director of the NTSB, including during the 2013 government shutdown.

Because the majority of the agency's employees are currently furloughed, investigators won't be able to respond "to major accidents, as well as other accidents where specific risks to transportation safety exists," said Dolline Hatchett, acting director of the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

"During the government shutdown and while agency employees are furloughed, launches to reported accidents will be considered on a case-by-case basis and when specific risks to transportation safety exists," Hatchett said in a statement.

The furlough also meant the federal agency had to cut short its probe of three other accidents — two highway crashes and one train derailment — in which a total of eight people were killed.

NTSB also sends its investigators to assist in crash investigations abroad when the military or a foreign government requests it.

This came up on Monday when officials announced that Navy divers found the cockpit voice recorder of the Lion Air Boeing 737 that crashed into the Java Sea in October, killing 189.

NTSB brought back three investigators from furlough to help with the investigation, sending them to Jakarta, Indonesia. They remain unpaid for their work supporting Indonesian investigators, but the federal government did pay for their travel.

"The costs for this effort was permitted because work on the Lion Air investigation addresses emergency circumstances under the Anti-Deficiency Act (and thus federal furlough rules)," Hatchett said in an email. "NTSB’s participation in this investigation is focused on addressing any potential aviation safety concerns that could immediately threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property."

Critics of the shutdown point out the important investigative work that the NTSB does and said their absence is more than troubling.

“These are key things the NTSB is involved in, and people take it for granted,” DeFazio said. “It’s kind of like your guardian angel. You don’t know they’re there keeping you safe.”

Many worry of the shutdown's impact on the workforce in the long term, as experts say the NTSB is one of many agencies that struggles to retain employees. This furlough isn’t helping them to reduce turnover.

It hurts employees to have to stay home, Mayer said, because it forces them to temporarily abandon their “life’s work” and watch accidents happen without necessary follow-up.

“It’s beyond frustrating to them that they are sitting at home unable to do the work they signed up for,” Mayer said. “It’s nothing more than demoralizing seeing accidents occur and having expertise to investigate and being unable to do so.”