CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y. (WIVB) - We considered a lot of great candidates who really made a difference over the past year in western New York, but one stood out from the rest.
The winner of the 2011 News 4 Person of the Year award are the families of Flight 3407. In just two-and-a-half years, they were able to accomplish what the government could not do in two decades: toughening the rules governing pilot fatigue. Their perseverance has made the skies safer for all of us. Rich Newberg's report focuses on the support the families gave each other, all bearing the emotional toll for a greater cause.
Tina Siniscalco, who lost her sister in the crash, described that fateful night as "the worst nightmare any family could have." But amid their grief and unimaginable heartbreak came a sense of purpose.
Kevin Kuwik, who lost his girlfriend, said, "All along in your heart you feel this was preventable."
Almost immediately, the families of Flight 3407 started mobilizing. Something went terribly wrong aboard the Continental connection flight from Newark, New Jersey to Buffalo that February night in 2009.
Pilot error was one of the chief causes that lead to the deadly crash in Clarence Center, according to federal investigators. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilots' performance was likely impaired by fatigue.
NTSB member Deborah Hersman said, "I think this crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 30 seconds, and they didn't see it coming."
The families made calls and visits to Congress and met with President Obama to advocate for aviation safety improvements. They were in Washington for NTSB hearings on the crash.
Sen. Charles Schumer said, "I think, and I told the families this, we prayed together and shared our thoughts. The focus on this terrible tragedy is going to, I think, galvanize not just the families here but many of us in the Congress and the American people to demand that serious changes be made."
They knew it would not be easy, but that did not stop them.
"Washington is a very tough place, and the bureaucracy beats you down and beats you down until you give up. And the challenge is not to give up," opined Rep. Brian Higgins.
There's the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been criticized over the years for not acting fast enough on safety recommendations issued by the NTSB. Mary Schiavo, formerly an inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been critical of the agency for that reason. She came to Buffalo along with other airline safety advocates not long after the 2009 crash.
"The real bottom line is always money," stated Schiavo. "They're afraid it will cost the manufacturers or the airlines money, and they really don't like to do that."
She was joined by Bob Monetti, who lost his son in the 1988 Pan Am flight disaster over Lockerbie, Scotland.
"It takes people like us, and hopefully other people to get them to do the things that they're supposed to do," said Monetti.
It would take a citizen's army to effect real change, and in the closing days of 2011, nearly three years after the crash, there would finally be some light emerging from the darkness.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "We really have addressed the major issues that the family asked us to address, and concerns that people have had for 25 years that have worked on this rule. This is a big deal today. It's a big deal because for 25 years people have been talking about this and haven't done a dang thing about it. And we have."
The FAA came out with new rules aimed at combating pilot fatigue. The long fight for new safety standards struck a chord with federal regulators. The 3407 families, who lost the most, finally broke through the layers and layers of government bureaucracy.
"The rule that we're announcing today is, I think, the very best safety rule for the flying public," said LaHood. "For people who get on these regional planes in communities like Buffalo or Peoria, Illinois and trust their lives to pilots who they believe are well-trained and well-rested."
Among other things, the rules would limit the maximum time a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty, and require that pilots receive a minimum of 10 hours rest between duty periods. Safety advocates have been urging the FAA for over two decades to update pilot work rules, but previous efforts stalled. The crash of Flight 3407 revived the debate and the families would not give up.
Sen. Schumer said, "It took a long time. It shouldn't have been this long. But at least we've crossed the finish line. In terms of pilot fatigue the world will be a different, better and safer place, and it wouldn't have happened without the families."
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said of the families:
"They demonstrated so much grace after suffering such terrible losses by supporting one another and creating an incredible force of dedicated, caring people who had one joint goal - to ensure that no other families would experience what they had."
"Their presence in
Washington was consistant, was fiercely determined, but always respectful. And what they were able to do in two-and-a-half years the National Transportation Safety Board wasn't able to do in two decades," added Rep. Higgins.
The new fatigue rules won't cover cargo carriers, but will apply to passenger airline pilots nationwide, once fully implemented in a couple of years. It's a major shift caused by a major force, known as the families of Flight 3407.
Sen. Schumer said, "People who fly commuter airlines will be a lot safer as a result of the actions of the families, because now the rules for pilots at commuter airlines are going to be exactly the same as they are for the major airlines, and that's a huge, huge change."
Justine Krasuski, whose husband Jerry died in the crash, summed it up this way: "It is a day to celebrate. No, it won't bring our loved ones back. But we will celebrate in knowing that they did not die in vain."
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