Category Archives: Marine Safety

I Lived My Dream: Looking Back on 15 years at NTSB

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

I guess it all started on an overcast day in 1973, when I found myself on the scene of a fatal aviation crash for the first time. I had heard of the crash on my car radio, and, as a curious 17‑year-old, I decided to find the crash location. Once there, I saw the remains of a twin-engine airplane lodged in the bases of the surrounding pine trees. Seeing that accident scene sparked an acute interest within me for accident investigation. In college, I spent copious amounts of time in the government documents library reading NTSB aircraft accident reports. It was then, in the mid-1970s, that I began to dream of becoming an NTSB Board member. Today, as I wrap up 15 years with the agency, serving as Board member, vice chairman, and chairman, I can look back and say I have truly lived that dream.   

Photo of ‘The State’ newspaper article on the 1973 plane crash

I was sworn in as the 37th member of the NTSB in August 2006. Seven days later, I found myself on the scene of another aviation disaster. Comair flight 5191, a regional jet operated as a Delta Connection, crashed just off the departure end of a runway in Lexington, Kentucky. Forty-nine lives were lost that morning after the pilots inexplicitly attempted to take off on a short, closed, unlighted runway. The investigation found that the pilots’ casual attitude during preflight and during the brief taxi, including their engaging in nonpertinent conversation, enabled the crew’s errors. Quite simply, the crew wasn’t paying attention and lost positional awareness. As a result, we issued and reiterated several recommendations to prevent that same type of accident. Today, flights are safer because airline pilots use enhanced procedures to ensure they are aligned with the proper runway before departure, and pilots have electronic maps that provide real-time position information during taxi.

Since the Comair crash, I’ve been on the NTSB Go-Team and served as the Board member on scene for 35 transportation accidents and crashes, and I’ve been involved in the deliberation and determination of probable cause of over 250 accidents and crashes. I’ve met with grieving family members and friends of victims on the worst day of their lives. Through these interactions, the one thing that really stands out to me is just how precious life really is. I’ve often said that we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims of transportation accidents and their families. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

Looking back, I believe there are two things that allow the NTSB to truly be one of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” as ranked by the Partnership for Public Service: the agency’s mission, and our people.

First, the agency’s mission: Congress charged the NTSB with investigating transportation accidents and crashes, determining their cause, and issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. It’s an important calling—taking something tragic and learning from it so others don’t have to endure such a tragedy. Since the NTSB was formed in 1967, we have investigated over 150,000 aviation accidents, along with thousands of highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents and incidents. In that period, we’ve issued over 15,000 safety recommendations, the majority of which have been successfully implemented.  

Our people: Even with a respectable mission, you’re nothing without great people. Fortunately, this is where the NTSB really takes the cake. We’re able to attract and retain dedicated, bright employees who love their work. We actively promote diversity and inclusion, and my hope is that the agency will continue to expand this effort. Our investigators’ passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. Even throughout the pandemic, although working remotely, NTSB employees found ways to continue delivering our high-quality products. For example, before the pandemic, we had never conducted virtual Board meetings, where we deliberate accident findings, determine the probable cause, and adopt safety recommendations. Even with the challenges of 2020, our employees figured a way to get it done. We held 12 virtual Board meetings in a year, which compares favorably to a normal year of in-person meetings. Although I’ve always had high expectations of the NTSB workforce, I can honestly say that, considering the challenges we all faced during the pandemic, NTSB employees surpassed all expectations.

There are several other qualities that allow the NTSB to be a highly respected federal agency. One of our core values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We realize that, when a transportation disaster occurs, the public needs to be assured that the government is conducting an open, competent, and thorough investigation. Therefore, we deliver fact-based information as we learn it. We don’t speculate—just the facts, ma’am. All NTSB Board meetings and hearings are open to the public (literally in person when not in pandemic times, and always via webcast). We post all our accident reports and publications on our website, along with the docket for each accident, which provides reams of background information such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the final accident report.

When I was sworn in for my first term at the agency in 2006, I told the audience something I had read: “Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states, and sometimes the world.”

I followed up by saying, “I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the NTSB. When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, ‘you know, we—Board members, professional staff, industry, labor, government—we all worked together, and we did make a positive impact.”

Indeed, looking back, I truly believe we have made a difference.

I will very much miss working with the incredibly dedicated men and women of the NTSB. It will be hard to stop referring to the NTSB as “we.” Although I will no longer be part of it, the NTSB will always be part of me. For that privilege, I am forever proud and grateful. I have lived my dream.

Episode 39: Marine Safety

May 22-28, 2021, has been designated as National Safe Boating Week, which kicks off a yearlong campaign promoting the importance of wearing a life jacket.

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @ NTSB, we talk with Morgan Turrell, Director, NTSB Office of Marine Safety, about the 2021-2022 Most Wanted List safety item Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety, the NTSB Safer Seas Digest and recent marine investigations. Morgan also shares boating safety tips, including the importance of wearing a life jacket, as we approach the Memorial Day Holiday weekend.  

Behind-the-Scene @NTSB podcast Marine Safety episode

The NTSB Safer Seas Digest mentioned in this episode is available on the Safer Seas Digest 2019 Lessons Learned from Marine Accident Investigations web page.

The full report for the investigation into the fire aboard the small passenger vessel Conception is available on our web site.

For information about the upcoming NTSB Board meeting on the 2019 sinking of the fishing vessel Scandies Rose read the media advisory.

Get the latest episode on Apple Podcasts , on Google PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/

Improving Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

May 22–28 is National Safe Boating Week, calling to mind well known campaigns against boating while intoxicated, distracted operations, and promoting proper use of life jackets on watercraft. But the present NTSB Most Wanted List puts a special emphasis on a lesser-known issue: the safety of passenger vessels and commercial fishing vessels.

It’s critical to watch out for your own safety and that of your guests on board personal watercraft, but when you step aboard a passenger vessel or go to work on a fishing vessel, somebody else is responsible for the whole range of safety concerns, from having appropriate fire-detection devices to well-maintained lifesaving equipment. We’re working to ensure that marine operators have your safety in mind, in part, by asking the country’s marine transportation regulating authority, the US Coast Guard, to implement our safety recommendations.

Passenger Vessels

Passenger vessels range in size from small charter vessels, such as dive boats and amphibious passenger vessels (DUKW boats or “duck boats”) to large cruise ships operating in international waters. The number of passengers and crew on these types of vessels varies.

Fires can pose a catastrophic threat to passenger vessels, as we saw in the 2019 Conception dive boat accident off the coast of California, in which 34 people died. Our investigations have revealed that crew training and safety regulations for these vessels vary, increasing the risk to passengers and crew. We have investigated 74 fire-related marine accidents since 2010.

To prevent needless deaths and mitigate injuries, passenger vessels should:

  • have safety management systems,
  • use voyage data recorders, and
  • provide adequate fire-detection, extinguishing systems, and available emergency egress options.

Operators should ensure their crews have enhanced training that includes practicing fire drills and learning firefighting techniques. We also need to see existing requirements for roving patrols enforced to ensure passengers are being transported safely.

Additionally, amphibious passenger vehicle operators should instruct passengers that seat belts must not be worn while the vessel/vehicle is operated in the water. Each passenger should visually check to ensure they have unbuckled their belt when the vessel enters the water.

Commercial Fishing

The commercial fishing industry, which remains largely uninspected, is another marine sector of concern. Fishing consistently tops the list of most deadly occupations due, in large part, to challenging work environments, such as poor weather and rough waters. These conditions threaten vessel stability and integrity, which, as we’ve seen in our investigations, can lead to catastrophic results. More than 800 people have died on fishing vessels in the past two decades.

We need new standards to address—and periodically reassess—intact stability, subdivision, and watertight integrity in commercial fishing vessels up to 79 feet long. Many fishing crews aren’t trained in stability management techniques or emergency response, and we have found that many vessels do not have proper life-saving equipment, such as flotation devices and operational search-and-rescue locator devices.

Back on the Water

As more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, many Americans are considering travel again, including on personal craft, passenger, and fishing vessels. The NTSB will continue to investigate accidents such as allisions, groundings, sinkings, and vessel fires in which people are injured or lose their lives, vessels are damaged or destroyed, or there is a threat to the environment. These cases are rare, and we hope to make them rarer, but as traffic on our waterways begins to return to pre-pandemic levels, the likelihood of an accident increases.

The dedicated men and women of the US Coast Guard work to improve safety on both passenger and fishing vessels by implementing recommendations that come out of our investigations and studies. We continue to urge the US Coast Guard to act on our passenger and fishing vessel recommendations to make these marine sectors as safe as possible for crews and passengers.

Learn more

Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety

National Safe Boating Week

Fire Aboard Small Passenger Vessel Conception
Santa Barbara, CA | September 2019


Sinking of Amphibious Passenger Vessel Stretch Duck 7
Branson, MO | July 2018


Capsizing and sinking of fishing vessel Destination
George’s Island, AK | February 2017


Fire aboard Roll-on/Roll-off Passenger Vessel Caribbean Fantasy
Atlantic Ocean, 2 Miles Northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico | August 2016


Capsizing and sinking of fishing vessel Christopher’s Joy
Southwest Pass, LA | September 2014

Returning to Travel with Safety on the Mind

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Office of Safety Advocacy

Normally this time of year, the transportation safety advocacy world would be buzzing with annual calendared campaigns, like these more well-known ones in the highway safety world:

• Global Youth Traffic Safety Month
• Motorcycle Awareness Month
• 100 Deadliest Days of Summer
• NHTSA’s “Click it or Ticket” seatbelt enforcement campaign

As the weather gets warmer, students learning to drive, fly or even operate a boat would gather for educational awareness-raising events or training seminars and conferences. Driver-educators and safety advocates would be working to pour their hearts and souls into reaching teen drivers on stages around the country, hoping to convince some to avoid the bad choices that would put them at higher risk of traffic crashes. Flight schools would be gearing up for the busy summer flying months, and the US Coast Guard and other organizations would be prepping for summer safety on our waterways.

But it is different this year. This year, the country is in large part sheltering in place because of a global public health pandemic.

In terms of traffic safety, the dark cloud might have a silver lining. The Los Angeles Times reports that crash incidences have reduced by half due to the virus; however, Streetsblog.org questions whether this silver lining in the form of reduced numbers of crashes will come with another dark cloud in the form of higher rates of crashes. We will have to wait for the statistics to be compiled a year or more from now to get a clearer picture. Although advocacy messages no longer reach students face-to-face, young people have less freedom—and reason—to drive. Will those two factors cancel each other out? Will drivers of all ages remember to drive sober and without distractions? Only time will tell.

General aviation continues to operate, though in a slightly more limited fashion, but we at the NTSB continue to investigate crashes. Boaters have not been out, due to shutdowns and weather, but with summer coming, things will change.

The big question I find myself pondering is, what will transportation safety look like once we are all able to move about freely again?

I like to think that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that the best way to predict your future is to create it. I wonder about the new normal that we could strive to achieve in transportation safety on the other side of this pandemic. I also find myself worrying about re-emergence shock on the highways.

I recall from my time in the Marine Corps that when we’d return from duty on ship for an extended period without driving, traffic safety advocates would come on board to remind us what we would be facing returning home. That type of reminder would be helpful now after this long period of reduced driving. Have our skills gotten rusty? Will our road awareness be slow to return?

A potential benefit that could come from this pandemic, though, is that many of us have become much more mindful of how our behavior affects others. Will our mindfulness stay with us when we head back out on the roads, or jump back into our cockpits, or warm up our boats?

The present crisis knocked us out of our 24/7, “go-go-go” lifestyle suddenly and shockingly. Now, it is finally sinking in that returning to that normal will not happen soon or suddenly; rather, it will happen step by step. How can we rebuild transportation safety in our new normal? Tens of thousands of lives are lost on our roads every year. For too long, we have accepted this as normal. Perhaps this pandemic will wake us up to the fact that it does not have to be this way.

The step to transitioning back to our new normal will be to remember all the little safety lessons that might not have been front-of-mind these last few weeks or months. Returning to safe driving, flying, and other transportation operations will require renewed focus. To help us return to safe operations, the NTSB and other transportation organizations will launch the #SafetyReminder campaign with a Twitter chat @NTSB, May 21, 2020, at 12pm EDT.  You can join the conversation by mentioning @NTSB in your tweets to questions and comments or simply follow the conversation using #SafetyReminder.

SafetyReminder Announcement 1

I encourage you to follow the campaign and brush up on some of the things you may have forgotten before we all get back out on the road. When it comes to transportation safety, we really are all in this together.

Ensuring Transportation Safety, Even During a Crisis

By Member Jennifer L. Homendy

For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up every morning to a text message from the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) updating riders on its continued service and modified schedule. It’s hard not to think of all the VRE and Amtrak locomotive engineers and conductors that I’ve come to recognize (or know by name—Hi, Willie and Samantha!) over the years, and how dedicated they are to continuing to serve the public during this national emergency. You and your colleagues across the country are heroes. Thank you for all you do.

The safety of transportation workers across all modes is extremely important especially during times of crisis. Our nation’s transportation workforce is essential to getting critical goods to states and local communities and to ensuring that those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic, like medical personnel, grocery store employees, and other essential personnel, are able to continue the fight against COVID-19. Without all of them, we’d be in a much more dire situation. Still, we need to make sure that the transportation workers who are putting their lives at risk daily to make deliveries or get people to work are also safe. That not only means providing them with necessary personal protective gear, but also ensuring any regulatory waivers do not jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.

Since the start of this national emergency, many transportation entities facing staffing shortages due to illness and the need to quarantine have requested emergency relief from certain safety regulations. These entities cite concerns about their ability to deliver critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare while meeting regulatory requirements for inspections, training, and maintenance, to name a few. Although regulatory relief from certain requirements may be necessary during this difficult time, I urge the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to carefully review each request and put measures in place to ensure that the safety of transportation workers, and all others who must travel, remains a priority.

We are all being challenged in ways that we could not have imagined a month ago. People are staying safe by traveling only when absolutely necessary and maintaining a safe social distance from others. Those in the transportation industry are also doing what they can to stay safe while continuing to do the important work of moving the people and goods that keep our nation pushing forward during this crisis.

It’s important that any regulatory relief the DOT determines is appropriate is only temporary. This crisis can seem overwhelming, but as a nation, we will prevail. It’s important that when our lives start to take the path back to “normal,” safety regulations—many of which the NTSB has long advocated for following tragic crashes—are reinstituted. Temporary measures to address a crisis should not become the new normal. An efficient transportation network is key to our nation’s success during this challenging time, but we must not forget the importance of ensuring the safety of transportation workers and the traveling public both now and in the future.