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Task force: Respect families of air crash victims

After hearing a litany of painful stories from relatives of plane crash victims, a task force Wednesday recommended sweeping changes in how families are treated by the airlines, the news media and the government.

In a report to Congress, the Task Force on Assistance to Families of Aviation Disasters said airlines should more quickly notify relatives after a crash and be more accommodating and sensitive to families' needs.

The task force said airlines should ask every passenger for the name of someone to call if there is an accident.

The report also urged the news media to be less intrusive to families and said lawyers should wait 45 days before soliciting the families as clients.

"We need to do a better job in this country respecting people while they grieve," said Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.

Congress called for the task force last year when it passed a law requiring the airlines to submit detailed plans on how they would respond to a crash.

The task force, comprising victims' family members and representatives from industry and government, elaborated on the law and made additional suggestions for the airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Many of the complaints from families started with the crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh in September 1994. Family members said that USAir took too long to notify them and that the airline was insensitive to their needs.

Much of Wednesday's report dealt with the news media. The task force said surviving family members should have ample time to notify relatives before a victim's name is released.

The report asked reporters "to respect the privacy of family mem-bers after an air crash" and said the NTSB should become a liaison between families and the press.

Responding to complaints that airlines and crash investigators have been careless with the belongings of victims _ even dumping some in a trash bin _ the task force said airlines should do a better job keeping track of the belongings.

"We're not talking about the monetary value of a watch or the contents of a purse," said Doug Smith, a task force member whose daughter was killed in an October 1994 crash in Roselawn, Ind. "There are many memories wrapped up in gifts that have been given, things such as a teddy bear."

In the six months the task force met, the most contentious issue was whether families should be able to listen to the cockpit voice recorder from a crash.

Federal law says only people in the NTSB investigation can listen to it, although an edited transcript is released to the public.

A few members of the task force wanted families to have limited access to the cockpit tape.

They said one possibility would be to use audio equipment to screen other voices so families of pilots could hear their loved one's last words.

But the full task force voted overwhelmingly to stick with the current system that limits access to the NTSB.

The task force also urged the NTSB to evaluate its unusual "party system," the process that allows airlines, unions and aircraft manufacturers to be partners with the safety board in an investigation. The task force said that looked like "the fox guarding the henhouse" because the parties were partners in the investigation and yet could ultimately be blamed for a crash.

Most of all, task force members said they wanted to see the airlines show compassion.

Said Kendra St. Charles, a survivor of the crash of USAir Flight 405: "Five years ago, I almost lost my life in a plane crash. I didn't hear from the government and I didn't hear from the airline. I didn't think anybody cared about me. The only people I heard from were the attorneys."