NTSB Warns Evidence for Deadly Plane Crash Investigations May Be Lost Due to Shutdown
At least 22 aviation, marine, rail and highway accidents that resulted in a total 32 fatalities were not investigated during the government shutdown, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Monday. The shutdown could have also compromised perishable evidence in crashes that happened while the government was closed.
NTSB investigators returned to work on Monday after the majority of the agency's employees were furloughed in the US government shutdown. As its full workforce returned to the office, the NTSB released some of the dire consequences the closure of the government had on crash investigations during the 35-day shutdown.
Most of the agency's accident investigations were on hold during the shutdown because 367 of the NTSB's 397 employees were furloughed: That's more than 90% of the board's workers. This left the NTSB unable to dispatch any investigators for 15 the aviation accidents that resulted in 21 fatalities during the shutdown.
In addition to the aviation incidents that went without a probe, the safety bureau says it was unable to look into a total of 22 crashes, including three marine accidents, two railroad accidents resulting in two fatalities and two highway accidents resulting in seven fatalities and 15 injuries.
"The 22 accidents in which the NTSB did not launch investigators, but would have if not for the partial shutdown, may not result in investigators physically visiting the accident sites, and, it is possible that perishable evidence may have been lost," the agency wrote in a release on Monday, noting that this could prevent teams from determining the causes of the crashes.
The agency said it would begin drafting plans on how to address the work that piled up and evidence that could have been lost during the shutdown. Part of that determination is whether to send investigators to the crash sites, where sensitive evidence could be lost, or simply glean what information they can from wreckage and other clues.
Experts say this will certainly have a negative effect on the investigations.
“Those are accidents that we really should have looked at and were not able to do that now because it’s gone,” former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker told the AP. “Without physically having an opportunity to look at it yourself, you really don’t get the exposure to it.”
Investigators were also forced to stop work on 1,815 ongoing "general aviation and limited aviation" safety investigations, as well as postponing a board meeting to determine why a plane overran a runway at an airport in Michigan. Scores of other probes into marine, railroad and highway incidents were also put on hiatus.
During the 35-day shutdown, four NTSB investigators were eventually recalled to work without pay to assist with three international aviation accident investigations, and a total of 26 workers were excepted from the effects of the shutdown. The government could shut down again after the temporary funding deal to which US President Donald Trump and Congress agreed expires on Feb. 15.