The U.S. government shutdown has forced federal investigators to suspend their probe of an airplane crash in Santa Monica, Calif., that killed four people Sept. 29. The nation’s safety regulators and investigators are stopping work on accidents they deem noncritical and responding only to the most serious cases, sometimes without pay, as partisan political issues on Capitol Hill prevent a budget from being passed.
Working without a public affairs staff, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) communications director Thomas Zoeller told POLITICO that the Board has to be more selective in the cases it chooses to investigate.
For instance, Mr. Zoeller said that the crash of two commuter trains in Chicago Sept. 30, which injured dozens of people, could pose an “imminent threat to human life or property” and therefore would be investigated by the board’s scaled-back staff. NTSB officials said they do not feel the Santa Monica airplane crash warranted an immediate and thorough investigation amid the shutdown. Investigators collected perishable evidence from the crash site, but will not resume investigation until the shutdown ends.
The twin-engine Cessna Citation was landing at Santa Monica Airport from Hailey, Idaho, when it left the runway, hit a sign, and crashed into a hangar, which collapsed on top of the plane. The plane and hangar burst into flames that consumed the surrounding hangars, fed by jet fuel from the crashed plane and other sources.
The crash killed businessman and pilot Mark Benjamin, 63, of Malibu, Calif., his son Lucas Benjamin, 28, also of Malibu; Lauren Winkler, 28, of Irvine, and Kyla DuPont, 53, of San Diego.
Calif. Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) disagreed with the NTSB’s decision to shutter the Santa Monica crash probe, saying that investigators should at least interview “all relevant witnesses” before they shelve the probe.
“I have led many congressional investigations and know that recollections fade and change with time,” Mr. Waxman said in a statement to POLITICO. “Quick action now would help ensure the accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation later.”
According to POLITICO, Mr. Waxman has been communicating his concerns to NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman, and has urged the Board to expand its investigation of the Santa Monica crash to the include the overall safety of the Santa Monica Airport. He gave a number of reasons to justify his request, including “extensive community concern about the safety of the airport layout.”
The NTSB’s contingency plan states the Board can authorize highly specific investigations during the government shutdown when “failure to proceed with the investigation creates a significant risk to transportation safety.” According to the plan, the NTSB must continue its “ongoing investigation activities and report production that are absolutely necessary to prevent the imminent potential for loss of life and significant property damage if the NTSB fails to act.”
Although general aviation crashes involving smaller, private planes are fairly common, claiming about 500 lives in the U.S. every year, not many of them indicate larger, serious problems beyond pilot error or simple mechanical failure.
The Cessna airplane that crashed in Santa Monica has been operating since 1991 without major problems, POLITICO reported, and Mr. Benjamin was an experienced pilot. According to Mr. Waxman, those facts, combined with safety concerns over the Santa Monica Airport, warrant keeping the crash investigation active during the shutdown.