By Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH, Vice Chairman of NTSB
Last week is one I won’t forget: it marked the 40th anniversary of the day my family—and many other Vietnamese American families—first set foot on American soil.
My parents, my three older brothers, and I were on an American airplane out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport in late April 1975, thanks to the help of my dad’s American friends and fellow physicians. We landed safely first in Guam, then Camp Pendleton, and finally in Texas, to begin our life in the United States. We didn’t bring much in the way of luggage, but we did bring a great deal of commitment to public service and gratitude for our new home.
My father, a physician, and my mother, a nurse, instilled in their four kids a deep gratitude for the opportunities we were given in the United States. My three brothers chose to serve others as surgeons, saving lives. My path to public service has been slightly different. I am honored to have been appointed as Member and Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I am proud to be the first Asian American to serve as a Board Member, but I am even prouder of the fact that there are other Asian Americans at the NTSB making valuable contributions to our country. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this week, coincidentally, is Public Service Recognition Week, and May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.)
With so many milestones, perhaps it is fitting that last week also marked both my first Board Meeting at the NTSB and my first “launch” to an accident investigation. First, with Chairman Christopher Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, and Member Earl Weener, I was pleased to discuss the final report of the March 2014 accident involving a Chicago Transit Authority passenger train. The recommendations resulting from that meeting will, if acted upon, improve safety by reducing the chance that mass transit train systems will have fatigued operators and design flaws.
Then, at the conclusion of the Board Meeting, I quickly gathered my “go bag” (containing safety vest, hard hat, boots, and other safety gear) to accompany Member Weener on my first launch to a site near Roswell, New Mexico, where two freight trains had collided head on. Sadly, one person died at the scene and another person was seriously injured. I was struck by the powerful forces of two trains colliding, the sheer dedication and technical expertise of investigators and staff, and the productive collaboration of local and state authorities for the benefit of safety. To see the destruction at the crash site reinforced even further the need to do everything in our power to prevent these accidents from happening in the first place. As Member Weener, a long-time Board Member and the principal spokesperson at the scene, said, “Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened, and to recommend changes to prevent it from happening again.”
This noble mission of the NTSB is one I plan to keep in the forefront of my mind as I serve my term. I look forward to using what I have learned this past week, and in the weeks to come, to do everything I can to advance transportation safety and prevent deaths and injuries. Forty years after setting foot on American soil, it is the least I can do for the country that has given me—and my fellow Vietnamese Americans—so much.