By Debbie Hersman
Tragedy sometimes has a way of focusing individuals to push for change that benefits others. We see this frequently in our work—an accident occurs and those affected the most become strong advocates for safety improvements. Each story of loss is heartbreaking, but these stories can also open minds so that changes can be made.
February 12 marks the third anniversary of the Continental Connection 3407 accident in Clarence Center, New York. This accident took the lives of 50 people: 49 on the plane and one on the ground. Our investigation highlighted a number of broad-ranging issues in aviation safety, including pilot professionalism, human fatigue, remedial training, pilot training records, FAA oversight, and the use of personal portable electronic devices on the flight deck.
In the days following the accident, many of the family members who lost loved ones in this accident came together with the resolve to make sure that what happened to their loved ones would not happen again. Several dozen family members attended the NTSB public hearing on the accident in May 2009 and the final Board Meeting in February 2010. These safety advocates developed a strategy based on the safety issues stemming from this accident to promote changes in aviation safety. In more than 40 trips to Washington, DC, they met with Members of Congress, staff of Congressional committees, administration officials, and the President. They testified at Congressional hearings, conducted media interviews, sent press releases, and started a website. Their efforts were influential in the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. That legislation included many of the safety recommendations the NTSB made following our investigation of the Continental Connection accident.
The process for the 3407 families was not always easy. When things got difficult they looked to one another and their common loss as a source of inspiration and support. I’ve been fortunate to know many of the 3407 family members and I am always struck by their positive attitude, their resolve, but, mostly, by their grace. I’ve seen these same qualities in other family members who advocate for transportation safety. Their personal loss gives focus to their efforts, and in the end we all, as citizens and as a nation, benefit from their selfless dedication to a larger purpose.
For me, the work of the Flight 3407 families and the good work of so many other family-member advocates reminds us that that learning the lessons from tragic accidents and advocating for improvements is truly important. The late Vice President Hubert Humphrey said: “Life’s unfairness is not irrevocable; we can help balance the scales for others, if not always for ourselves.”