It’s been four weeks since a van carrying children from a Louisiana church to Disney World in Florida collided with a swerving tractor-trailer, igniting diesel fuel and killing seven people in a fiery crash.
Now, federal crash investigators — sidelined during the longest government shutdown in history — are finally headed to the scene to study how to prevent such accidents in the future. It was one of 97 transportation accidents that occurred during the shutdown that kept the NTSB from performing preliminary examinations.
In 21 of the cases so far, including 15 aviation accidents that killed a total of 21 people, the safety board is opening belated inquiries.
The Florida Highway Patrol has done a good job of preserving physical evidence from the Jan. 3 crash, according to Rob Molloy, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Highway Safety. At the same time, he said, investigators worry that witnesses won’t be as reliable and the passage of time may limit the probe in other ways.
“It’s not ideal,” Molloy said. “It is not how we would normally would like to do things.”
Molloy was the only employee in NTSB’s highway safety division who worked during the partial shutdown that began Dec. 22, which cut funding to more than a dozen departments and agencies in a political dispute over whether to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. Lawmakers and the White House have until Feb. 15 to reach a compromise to ensure the government stays open.
While some agencies declared their workers to be essential for safety or security reasons, less than 10 percent of NTSB’s 367 employees remained on the job.
The shutdown forced the agency to suspend nearly 2,000 other accident investigations, including probes of fatal crashes involving automated vehicles and the deadly pipeline blasts that rocked three Massachusetts towns last year.
“The agency’s investigations provide vital recommendations for safety improvements to prevent accidents and save lives. Any delay in the NTSB’s work jeopardizes the safety and security of our nation’s transportation network and the traveling public,” Democratic Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut wrote in a letter Thursday to NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
Investigators arriving 27 days after a crash will almost certainly have limited evidence compared to what’s available in the immediate aftermath, said Peter Goelz, former managing director at the NTSB and now senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates, a Washington lobbying and public relations firm.
Key evidence can disappear or deteriorate, Goelz said. Witnesses may no longer be available, and their memories become less reliable.
“It makes it far more difficult to discern an accurate probable cause,” Goelz said. “If you want to have an accurate eyewitness statement, you really want to get it during the first 24 hours before other influences weigh in on the memory, because the memory is not a videotape.”
The NTSB only opens 20 to 30 highway accident probes a year and its focus is very different from that of local police, Molloy said. The safety board is interested in examining broader safety issues that could prevent deaths and injuries in the future, while police are trying to document information for possible criminal cases.
The Florida accident caught the NTSB’s interest because it may involve safety issues they’ve long been concerned with, including the flammability of fuel tanks on tractor-trailers, how passenger vans perform in collisions, and the use of seat belts, he said.
The tractor-trailer was traveling northbound on Interstate 75 near Gainesville, Florida, when it veered left, collided with another vehicle and barreled through a highway divider into the southbound lanes. It then slammed into the church van and another truck, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The van, which was carrying 12 people, overturned multiple times, ejecting some passengers. Another car couldn’t stop and hit at least one of those thrown from the van, according to the Highway Patrol. In addition to the seven people killed, nine others were injured.
The van was carrying three adults and nine children from the United Pentecostal Church in Marksville, Louisiana, a church superintendent wrote in a Facebook post. They were headed to Walt Disney World in Orlando, the Associated Press reported.
The Highway Patrol will work and share information with NTSB investigators “so that they have the most complete understanding of how this incident occurred,” Lieutenant Patrick Riordan, a public affairs officer, said in an email.
Molloy said his team of investigators should still be able to find what caused the Florida crash, but the toll of the shutdown means that it will likely be delayed along with the other open cases they were working on.
“Even though it’s great that we are can go out there and get the data, there’s still going to be effects as we try to catch up from the time we lost,” he said.
The Highway Patrol had used a drone to photograph and document the accident scene and has preserved the vehicles so NTSB’s team can examine them, Molloy said. More problematic will be contacting witnesses.
“The biggest thing is trying to talk to people and have their stories be reflective of what they would have been right after the crash,” he said. “And, it’s also difficult for those involved in the crash to have to go through the process of telling everyone their story again later.”
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