Families of plane crash victims get more answers

By JEFFREY McMURRAY Associated Press Writer Published:

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Its a scene Jim Hall recalls all too well. Human bones and flesh from the victims of USAir Flight 427, housed for months not in a morgue or cemetery but in a trash bin.

Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in 1994 when the Boeing 737 crashed while attempting to land in Pittsburgh, killing all 132 people on board.

NTSBs role back then was cut-and-dry: investigate the cause of a fatal plane crash. There was no procedure in fact, it was highly irregular for investigators to have any contact with victims family members or provide any information not already available on the news.

You had a really important stake holder for years left out of the process, Hall said.

But that crash and others perceived as indelicately handled prompted Hall to push the government to act. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Family Assistance Act, which mandates that the federal government would not just determine the cause of a fatal accident but also play a more compassionate role in helping surviving loved ones get through it.

Last month marked the 10-year anniversary of the law. Its effect was evident in the aftermath of Comair Flight 5191, which crashed shortly after takeoff Aug. 27 at the Lexington airport, killing 49 people and leaving the co-pilot critically injured.

Families who wanted to were flown to Lexington, put up in a hotel, guaranteed privacy, offered a chance to visit the accident scene and received regular briefings from NTSB before the media got the same information.

Under the law, lawyers hoping to represent families in lawsuits against the airline were forbidden from directly contacting them for 45 days. Peter Goelz, former managing director at NTSB, said in the past, families were getting phone calls from attorneys within hours after an accident.

As a result, airlines were cautious to be completely forthcoming with information because they were immediately put on the defensive for inevitable lawsuits, Hall said.

The economic considerations were really driving the treatment of the families rather than just the things we as human beings would expect and want, he said.

But Jennifer Stansberry, whose brother Brad was killed in the crash of American Eagle 4184 during freezing rain on Oct. 31, 1994, said the biggest legacy of the Family Assistance Act is its clear guidelines for dealing with the remains of victims and their personal belongings.

Stansberry said her family had buried a casket that the airline said contained remains of her brother but dug it up when there were questions about the legitimacy of the remains. When they opened the casket, Stansberry said it was clear the remains werent his.

It was a scalp with long blond hair, she said. My brother had short hair.

To this day, Stansberry says she still doesnt know the final resting place of her brother.

Jim Hurd, whose son Jamie was killed in the 1996 crash of TWA 800 off Long Island, N.Y., said it took seven months for his remains to be identified.

In the day after the crash, the Hurd family constantly called a phone number the airline had set up for family members but got no answer and no immediate confirmation Jamie was on board.

By the time we got any information at the Ramada, it was basically old news, Hurd said. You could basically watch everything live on TV.

But Hall and others said the Pittsburgh crash might have been the worst example of the treatment of loved ones prior to the Family Assistance Act.

Medical examiners would try to discard human remains after finding one identifiable piece for each passenger, said Hall, who saw some remains in a dumpster. Many personal belongings also were discarded, he said.

Dan Connolly, whose father Bob died in the Pittsburgh crash, says his family was one of the lucky ones who actually received identifiable remains. Some 38 coffins of unidentified remains were buried in an unmarked hill, he said.

Their goal was simply to find something for everybody they could, Connolly said. Once they had something, they werent going to look for any more of that person. It was quite deplorable.

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