RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's also an investigation into last week's subway crash in Washington. And when it happened, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene within hours. Granted, the tragedy occurred in the capital, the NTSB's backyard, but the agency makes it its business to arrive at an accident scene quickly and to immediately start putting the pieces together to find out what went wrong.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: As she stood in front of a bank of microphones and cameras, surrounded by Washington, D.C.'s mayor, police chief and other officials last Tuesday, NTSB board member Deborah Hersman was a picture of calm, thoroughness and authority.
Ms. DEBORAH HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): I'd like to provide you a brief update on our investigative activities since we arrived on scene last night.
NAYLOR: These are traits the NTSB prides itself on. Small by the standards of the 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. The outcomes of these investigations often end with recommendations for how to avoid a similar accident. But 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 pull from service the older type of cars involved in last week's crash.
Hersman was asked about that.
Ms. HERSMAN: In this case Metro told us that they were not going to be able to implement that recommendation to phase the cars out. We closed that recommendation in an unacceptable status because they did not meet the spirit or the intent of our recommendation.
Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Acting Chairman, NTSB): We are an independent agency that calls it like it sees it.
NAYLOR: Mark Rosenker is the acting chairman of the NTSB. In an interview in his office he points out some 82 percent of its thousands of recommendations are implemented. He says the agency is actually better off not having enforcement powers to ensure its recommendations are followed.
Mr. ROSENKER: 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 (unintelligible) those issues are for someone else to decide. We purely look at it from a safety standpoint.
NAYLOR: 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 aircraft windshield shattered by a bird sits at one workstation, a jagged piece of metal from a pipeline blast at another.
Sometimes the 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.
Mr. MICHAEL BUDINSKI (NTSB): We can read into the filaments to try to decide whether a light bulb was on or off. 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.
NAYLOR: Over in a corner of the lab, a gloved technician is examining a cell phone collected from an accident scene.
Budinski says the job calls for sensitivity.
Mr. BUDINSKI: Sometimes it is rather personal. We'll have blood or some other biohazards on samples, and so it's sometimes very real to us.
NAYLOR: The NTSB interviews survivors (unintelligible) talks to the manufacturers of equipment that has malfunctioned. It holds hearings for the bigger accidents.
Acting chairman Rosenker says the NTSB is nothing if not thorough.
Mr. ROSENKER: We don't have the luxury of saying here's what we believe happened, make recommendations, and then a month or two or three later say, well, it's not exactly how - we made a mistake. When we say this is what happened, it is what happened.
NAYLOR: The NTSB has served as a model for other nations' safety boards, from the Netherlands to Japan.
Rosenker, like other NTSB officials past and present, say working at the agency is one of the best jobs they've ever had, because, they say, it's a place where you can make a difference.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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