By Paul Sledzik
On June 24, a large truck struck an Amtrak passenger train at a grade crossing on a rural highway near Miriam, Nevada. Six people died and scores of rail passengers were injured. After that accident, the NTSB launched a “Go Team” to the site to begin investigating what caused the accident. Three members of the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance division, or TDA, accompanied the Go Team to coordinate assistance for family members of those killed or injured.
TDA was created in 1996 by the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which requires the NTSB to coordinate support for victims and their families after a major commercial aviation accident. However, the TDA team does not limit its efforts to aviation. It accompanies the Go Team to all major accidents regardless of the mode. To strengthen TDA’s role, in 2008, Congress enacted the Rail Passenger Disaster Family Assistance Act to require TDA cover passengers and family members involved in rail passenger accidents. The recent collision in Nevada was the first time TDA responded to a rail crash under this legislation. TDA staff members traveled to the accident location and worked closely with survivors, family members, Amtrak officials, and local agencies.
In the end, however, the assistance is not one-sided. NTSB has found time and again that victims’ families provide significant help in promoting transportation safety, perhaps as a way to work through their grief and ensure that their loved one did not die or become injured in vain. Michael Burch, who lost his father in a 1991 Amtrak accident in Lugoff, South Carolina, became an instrumental part of the task force that helped develop a rail disaster plan to exercise in an accident like the recent one in Nevada. In addition, the Burch family established the Dr. Gary Burch Memorial Safety Award in cooperation with the National Association of Railroad Passengers to recognize passenger rail employees who have made improvements to passenger railroad safety.
While NTSB is an investigative agency, the work of our TDA staff to help coordinate services with disaster response organizations to support survivors and family members is vitally important to provide help when it is needed most.
Paul Sledzik is Director of NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division.