ANGRY FAMILIES IN LIMBO
JULY 24, 1996
As Bill Clinton prepares to visit families of victims of TWA Flight 800, who are being housed in a hotel in New York City, TWA president Jeffrey Erickson discusses their frustration with rescue operations and poor communications, with Jim Lehrer. Their discussion takes place exactly one week after the tragedy occurred.
Listen to this interview with RealAudio. [14.4] [28.8]
July 19, 1996:
Threats To Freedom.
A terrorist bomb continues to circulate as one of the possible reasons behind the downing of TWA Flight 800. A panel of experts discuss attempts to balance security with personal freedom.
July 18, 1996:
It's unclear when authorities will know what caused the crash of TWA's Flight 800 that killed 230 onboard. As investigators hunt through 240 square miles of wreckage, a panel of experts considers possible scenarios.
JIM LEHRER: Now a Newsmaker interview with the President of TWA, Jeffrey Erickson. Hes been in Washington today meeting with federal officials and members of Congress. Mr. Erickson, welcome.
JEFFREY ERICKSON, President, TWA: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: First, for the record, have there been any major developments today in regard to what may have caused this plane to go down a week ago?
MR. ERICKSON: Not that Ive heard. My major effort here has been to brief the administration and a number of the leaders on Capitol Hill of how this investigation is proceeding from TWAs point of view and how, indeed, the families are being handled by our employee volunteers.
JIM LEHRER: But the--as far as what caused the plane to go down, is the--is the evidence still pointing toward a bomb or some kind of explosive device like that?
MR. ERICKSON: Based on everything that Ive seen and heard, there has been no cause that has been eliminated, and, in fact, there has been no cause that people are leaning to.
JIM LEHRER: Can you explain to us laypeople, Mr. Erickson, and I realize that TWA is not directly involved in that part of the--why is it taking so long to determine what caused this plane go down?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, you need, you need evidence. Part of the problem was that, that on, on the first day of this terrible tragedy, the recovery teams were able to only find what was on the surface, and I think everybodys spirits, including mine, were increased substantially on Sunday when for the first time we had indication that we had found parts of the airplane underwater, and that will lead us to, to bringing back the loved ones that everybody wants.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have the feeling based on the information that you have that they are getting close to determining anything definitive?
MR. ERICKSON: No. Unfortunately, these, these things take a frustratingly long time. There is no one more than I that wants to know the cause of this accident. But I want to know it on the basis of facts, on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of, of guessing.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Erickson, do the families have legitimate complaints about the way this thing has been handled from the beginning?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, I think Ive spent--I spent a lot of time with the families. Ive been there really every day, except for today when Ive been in Washington. Our primary effort--TWAs primary effort is in providing families support. We have some 125 trained employee volunteers having undergone two years of trauma training. We have one with each one of the families and our goal is to assist them, the families of our passengers, and the families of our employees in getting through this horrible tragedy.
JIM LEHRER: So whats the problem, Mr. Erickson, why are they not getting the information or why are they not getting the explanation for why theyre not getting the information that they want?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, part of the problem is because there still is so much of the, the airplane under the water, but we seem--we seem to be hearing from the investigators that it has been found, so its a question of bringing it to the surface, and examining the clues that it offers, but I think the real emphasis here and the appropriate priority is to--is to recover the, the victims of this horrible tragedy.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to the men in our taped piece who were French people but the Americans were essentially saying the same thing, that theres too much politics involved in this? What are they talking about, do you think?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, I think this is just a dreadful situation that, that we all need to move forward with to get solved. Thats what were trying to do. I very much appreciate the support of the city and the state as well as out in Suffolk County where the recovery is underway. The Navy, the Red Cross, everybody is participating with us in trying to move through this quickly and smoothly to everyones satisfaction.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have any explanation for why these conflicting--well, there were several of them yesterday--Betty Ann Bowser referred to some of them in her report--but there were even more--at one time White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said there was chemical residue and then Mike McCurry said, no, there wasnt, and et cetera, et cetera. What, whats the problem there, the communications problem? Do you happen to know?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, I was briefed by Leon Panetta, and I think theres just, indeed, no, no definitive evidence at this point in time.
JIM LEHRER: So the confusion that the--that the families feel or the frustration that the families feel you share, is that right? In other words, there is no information even though theres a lot of it around--for instance, the question about whether some other bodies were found under the water, the Pataki situation--can you add any light to that?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, I think we all want to see the rest of the victims recovered as quickly as possible. Thats what the families are telling me. Thats what the families are telling our employee escorts who want to find your loved one and you want to take them home. And were all anxious to get, to get to that.
JIM LEHRER: But you dont--from your perspective, and Ill get off this, go on to something else, but from your perspective, TWAs perspective, based on what you have seen is everybody on board in trying to accomplish that very thing, everybody who has a job to do, are they, in fact, doing it?
MR. ERICKSON: I think there is good cooperation, and its my understanding that there will be two or three briefings a day from here on out. There will be a continuing effort to get all the information to these families. One of the problems that Ive seen is that sometimes the press seems to get the information first. Weve got to get the information to the, to the families first.
JIM LEHRER: And thats one of their complaints. Has that been solved, do you think?
MR. ERICKSON: I believe it has been solved, and I think the proof of that will be seen in, in the daily briefings that, that will continue.
JIM LEHRER: Moving, moving on, Mr. Erickson, one of the--members of Congress today--and Im sure you heard from some of them today-- have proposed legislation that would move the notification process, the one that you all did after the plane went down, away from the airlines and put it in the hands of the Red Cross or a third party of some kind. Do you support that?
MR. ERICKSON: I support any mechanism that would, that would speed it up. Its, its a very complicated process. You have passengers coming from throughout the system to get on this airplane. The, the lists are mostly complete. Unfortunately, they werent complete to the point of view that we were satisfied with the accuracy, so I--I talked to a number of the leaders on the Hill, and I support that sort of legislation.
JIM LEHRER: Why was the--why is the--just go through the mechanics of this for us, Mr. Erickson, so we can understand--why is the passenger manifest, the official passenger manifest of Flight 800 or any flight of TWA or any other airline not accurate when it--when the flight--when the plane takes off?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, a number of things--things happen. You may have people that are taken off the airplane and moved to other flights. That, indeed, happened in this case. There are a number of--
JIM LEHRER: In other words--excuse me--on 800 there were names on the official passenger list who were not, in fact, on that plane, is that right?
MR. ERICKSON: There were names on the, on the original manifest that did not, indeed, go on the flight. There were also a number of employees that use ticket lists, travel to get on the flight, so what we really had to do was to assemble from a variety of lists, from the manifest, from the baggage list, from the Immigration's list, we check all these. If they were all the same, there would have been no problem, but they, indeed, were different, and we wanted to desperately make sure that people werent getting informed, that they had lost someone that indeed wasnt on the flight.
JIM LEHRER: How did you determine, for instance, if somebodys name turned up on the master list, how did you determine that that person wasnt, in fact, on that airplane when there were no bodies to look at, particularly the first twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours, et cetera?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, of course, we match it against the, the baggage list. The baggage list is very accurate but not everybody checks a bag, so not everybody is on that list, but, but we go through a variety of techniques. Well check the boarding passes from all the different stations that people may have started to, to connect to the, to this flight, and assemble it all through the course of the night to make sure that its accurate, its been submitted to the NTSB, and then we start notification which began at about 8 AM.
JIM LEHRER: Thats 8 AM the next day.
MR. ERICKSON: Correct.
JIM LEHRER: Were there cases where people flew under different names?
MR. ERICKSON: There were several cases where, where people either through a divorce or separation situation were under different names. That confused the issue a little bit. Its a complex--its a complex situation that we worked through as quickly as we could. Wed like to see it improve.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe it could be done better if it was done by some third party like the Red Cross, rather than by the airline?
MR. ERICKSON: Well, the Red Cross or any other third party is still going to need the airline to, to assemble the information. The airline is going to be, have to be part of the process, but I support anything, anything that will get news out quicker.
JIM LEHRER: Now you said at the beginning that you had--what did you say--120 TWA employees who were involved in counseling the families, is that correct?
MR. ERICKSON: Thats correct. We have 125 trained employee volunteers who have undergone two years of, of trauma training. They are supplemented by over 200 additional volunteers. All of these people are working face to face with the families.
JIM LEHRER: And do you think thats enough? I mean, do you think that that--that job that they are doing is adequate? Would you want the federal government or the Red Cross or somebody else to come in and help you do that, or do you think youve got that one down?
MR. ERICKSON: We have the Red Cross there. We have the support of mental health experts, physicians. This is not just a TWA effort. Were getting tremendous support, as I said, from the city, from the state, from the Port Authority, from the Red Cross, from Suffolk County.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, back to where we began, Mr. Erickson, do you have any idea as to when some definitive word will--there will be definitive word on what happened a week ago tonight?
MR. ERICKSON: I dont expect any definitive word until we see parts of the airplane or those black boxes come out of the ocean and be analyzed.
JIM LEHRER: And theres no indication as to when thats going to happen?
MR. ERICKSON: I hope its soon.
JIM LEHRER: Soon? A matter of days?
MR. ERICKSON: I hope so. I have no idea. Accident investigations are painfully slow.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Erickson, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
MR. ERICKSON: Thank you.
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