Aiding Crash Victims

A fast-moving bill that would for the first time give the federal government a formal role in helping the families of aviation disaster victims was approved Thursday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, LEGI-SLATE News Service reported.

The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, was approved by voice vote with neither debate nor discussion, and en bloc with a set of other non-controversial bills.

The measure, introduced by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., stands a chance of being enacted into law. It was introduced in late July and was marked up Wednesday by the Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee. Furthermore, President Clinton earlier this week issued an executive order implementing many of the bill provisions.

Airlines traditionally have carried the burden of aiding the victims of air crashes, but they have come under increasing fire for their performances after recent disasters.

After a hearing on the issue, Shuster cited a number of "horror stories" that demonstrate the need for this legislation. They included airline employees leaving messages on answering machines informing relatives of fatal accidents, airlines discarding the belongings of victims without informing relatives and the mass burial of unidentified body parts without informing the next of kin.

To ensure similar situations do not occur in the future, Shuster's legislation would make the National Transportation Safety Board the lead federal agency in dealing with the needs of the victims' families. The airlines, however, would retain the responsibility of informing family members of aviation-related fatalities.

The NTSB would be required to designate a director of family support services, who would act as a liaison for the government, the families and the airlines in the event of an aviation accident. The NTSB also would designate an independent organization, such as the Red Cross, to be responsible for providing emotional care and support for the victims' families.

The bill also would require air carriers to develop and submit a plan for addressing the needs of the families of passengers involved in an airline crash. It would create a task force to help develop a model plan, to be completed and transmitted to Congress within a year.

In response to the harassment of victims' families by lawyers in the days immediately following an accident, the bill would prohibit any attorneys or their representatives, insurance companies or litigation representatives from unsolicited contact with family members for a month after the accident.

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