PEMBROKE, N.Y. (WIVB) – A former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday he thinks the agency’s decision not to response to the site of a fatal Genesee County plane crash could impact the independence of their investigation.
Attorney Steve Barnes and his niece Elizabeth Barnes died Friday when their plane crashed in the Town of Pembroke. The plane impacted the ground nose first, and was highly fragmented, according to the NTSB. While Genesee County sheriff’s deputies and FAA officials responded to the scene, the NTSB did not.\
“I think there will be a good investigation. But I do hate to see a situation, because I think it does to some degree take away from the independence of the investigation,” said Jim Hall, who served as NTSB chairman from 1994-2001.
Hall said he could not recall an instance during his chairmanship in which the board did not personally respond to the scene of a fatal aviation incident. Of course, Hall didn’t serve at a time when a public health pandemic affected daily life. The NTSB cited COVID-19 as a reason for their decision not to travel to Pembroke.
Instead, they stayed in touch with FAA officials on scene. The wreckage of the aircraft has been removed, and taken to a facility in Tennessee. There, a team organized by the NTSB will conduct an examination, the board said.
“Our investigation of this crash does not rely solely upon our physical presence at the crash site, in fact, on-scene activities are but one portion of the many necessary to our investigative process,” Tim LeBaron, the Deputy Director for Regional Operations for the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, said Monday.
The NTSB also pointed out in 2019, before the pandemic began, they sent investigators to just 221 of the 1,310 incidents they investigated that year. Figures were not available for 2020. But Hall said the board needs to be “aggressive” in high profile cases such as the Barnes crash.
“I would hope the board would do everything they could during this difficult period to safely have a response to an event like this by the board itself,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that COVID is having an impact on so many things in our life, but to the extent of an event like this, we need to try to be sure that we maintain our process and procedures as carefully as we can while at the same time protecting public safety,” Hall added.
Genesee County Sheriff William Sheron downplayed the NTSB’s absence over the weekend, saying the crews on scene were conducting the same functions the NTSB would have been doing anyway. However the board’s decision still drew criticism from a group which included Reps. Brian Higgins and Chris Jacobs.
On Monday, Higgins says he met with current NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.
“Unfortunately, in this case the swampy site and burrowing of the aircraft several feet under require a salvage team with expertise in sifting through submerged wreckage, rather than the traditional ground-based ‘go team’ of NTSB Investigators. Nevertheless, the chair assured us the NTSB is committed to a full and thorough investigation,” Higgins said in a statement.
Steve Barnes, who for years was a leader of the well-known Cellino & Barnes law firm, was set to officially launch his new firm, The Barnes Firm, on October 12th. His coworkers also took note of the NTSB’s absense.
“With the COVID-19 restrictions they have now, they have their justifications for it. But yes, we’re disappointed that they’re not there, but not angry,” said Robert Schreck, the managing attorney for The Barnes Firm who worked with Barnes for 17 years.
The NTSB is expected to release a preliminary investigation report over the next few weeks. The investigation could take up to two years to complete.
Chris Horvatits is an award-winning reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2017. See more of his work here.