When one Metro train crashed into another in Washington, D.C., last week, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board was in place within hours. Granted, the tragedy occurred in the NTSB's backyard, but the federal agency makes it its business to arrive at an accident scene quickly and start putting the pieces together to find out what went wrong.
Small by the standards of Washington bureaucracy with just 402 employees, the NTSB nonetheless has a broad portfolio. Its investigators probe some 1,500 airplane accidents a year, along with dozens of marine mishaps, train accidents, pipeline explosions and highway crashes.
Agency Without Enforcement Powers
Those investigations often end with recommendations for avoiding similar accidents. But the NTSB's recommendations do not have the force of law — and many are ignored. That was the case with an earlier recommendation that Washington's Metro system pull from service the older type of train cars involved in last week's crash.
"In this case, Metro told us that they were not going to be able to implement that recommendation to phase the cars out," NTSB member Deborah Hersman says. "We closed that recommendation in an unacceptable status because they did not meet the spirit or intent of our recommendation."
Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker says the NTSB is "an independent agency that calls it like it sees it." He says about 82 percent of its thousands of recommendations are implemented. And he adds that the agency is actually better off not having enforcement powers.
"It's up to someone else to do all of the weighing and the balancing of what the costs might be, and how the industries might react, and how difficult it might be to regulate. Those issues are for someone else to decide," he said during an interview in his office. "We purely look at it from a safety standpoint."
Investigations Can Get Personal
A flight of stairs below the chairman's office is the NTSB's materials lab. It's a little like a set for TV's CSI, only with pictures of past plane accidents on the walls. A reconstructed helicopter windshield that had been shattered by a bird strike sits at one workstation, a jagged piece of metal from a pipeline blast at another.
Sometimes the agency's work pushes the limits of technology. Lab chief Michael Budinski says investigators determined the readings from one crashed plane's cockpit gauges by looking at tiny light bulb filaments.
"We can read into the light bulbs, the filaments, to try to decide whether a light bulb was on or off," Budinski says. "And knowing the condition of the instruments at the point of impact of the vehicle, mostly aircraft, we can provide some indication as to what the operating conditions were — what systems were on or off at the point of impact."
Over in a corner of the lab, a gloved technician examines a cell phone collected from an accident scene.
Budinski says the job calls for sensitivity. "Sometimes it is rather personal," Budinski says. "We'll have blood or some other biohazards on samples, and so it's sometimes very real to us."
A Model Abroad
NTSB officials interview survivors. They talk to the manufacturers of equipment that has malfunctioned. They hold hearings for the bigger accidents.
Rosenker says the NTSB is nothing if not thorough. "We don't have the luxury of saying, 'Here's what we believed happened,' make recommendations, and then a month or two or three later say, 'Well, that's not exactly how. We made a mistake when we say this is what happened,' " Rosenker says. "It is what happened."
The NTSB has served as a model for other nations' safety boards, from the Netherlands to Japan.
And Rosenker, like other NTSB officials past and present, says working at the agency is one of the best jobs he's ever had. He says it's a place where he can make a difference.