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NTSB's TDA: We're the government, and we're here to help you

It may not have been the worst year, but 1996 was not a good year for aviation. It was the year of the ValuJet crash in the Everglades (110 aboard, 110 killed). There were crashes in Norway and India that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of passengers and crew members. A U.S. Air Force jet crashed in Croatia, killing the 35 people on board, one of whom was the Secretary of Commerce. And, of course, it was the year that TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 aboard.

It was also the year Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act.

The law requires the National Transportation Safety Board's Transportation Disaster Assistance Division to take the lead on helping survivors as well as families and friends of victims following a major airplane crash. Essentially, TDA's job is to coordinate the resources of government agencies, volunteer agencies and the airline so the people affected by the accident do not have to. TDA must also ensure that the agencies work together without crossing swords.

When a plane goes down, a few things have to happen. First, the airline must notify families of passengers and crew members. The airline and TDA must establish a way to pass information about the investigation to families, friends and even survivors as quickly and accurately as possible.

Second, the victims must be identified. Third, personal effects must be managed -- some items will be helpful to investigators -- and then returned to the appropriate parties. Finally, crisis counselors must be brought in to help families and survivors, and airline personnel, cope.

From the time of the accident to the conclusion of the investigation, TDA is the primary point of contact with the survivors and victims' families. Part of that responsibility is to explain the roles of the other agencies and the airline as well as what the survivors and victims' families must do on their own.

For example, the airline, not TDA, has the authority to release the identities of victims and survivors. The families and survivors -- or their personal representatives -- are responsible for handling media inquiries, including interviews.

The goal was to eliminate as much red tape as possible for the people directly affected by an airplane crash. Whether it does is a topic for another day.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board

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