Tuesday, June 09, 2009

NTSB hearing: Passenger testimony vindicates US Airways flight attendant

by B. N. Sullivan

US Airways Flight 1549 evacuationFrom time to time I have chided the mainstream news media for rampant speculation regarding aircraft accident investigations, and for accusatory statements about crew members who are in no position to defend themselves publicly. This is one of those times.

Moreover, in this instance an official of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) allegedly made statements about a crew member's behavior that were untrue, fueling the fire. He, of all people, should know better.

Several days ago as I was browsing stories on Google News, I came across the following title: Witness to challenge flight attendant's story. I clicked on it, and found it was an Associated Press (AP) story about the NTSB's public hearing on US Airways Flight 1549, the Airbus A320 that ditched in the Hudson River back in January.

The lead paragraph of the AP story implied that a passenger from the accident flight would testify at the NTSB hearing that "it was a flight attendant — not a panicked passenger — who opened a rear door on the aircraft, sending water rushing into the cabin."

I have to tell you, I was flabbergasted. I could hardly take in what I was reading!

The story of what happened on board that airplane on the afternoon of January 15, 2009 is well known by now. There have been countless newspaper and magazine write-ups about the 'splash landing' of Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, and the subsequent successful evacuation and rescue of all 150 passengers and five crew members.

The two pilots and three flight attendants have told their story during numerous interviews on TV. Most notably, they also gave testimony before Congress about what they experienced that day.

Was it possible that a conflicting version of what transpired was soon to be revealed for the first time? I just couldn't believe it. It made no sense.

Yet there it was again, further along in the AP article: "Board member Robert Sumwalt, who will chair the hearing, said that [passenger] Campbell has told NTSB investigators that it was flight attendant Doreen Welsh who cracked open the door, not a passenger." Mr. Sumwalt is vice chairman of the NTSB.

I just couldn't believe that Ms. Welsh, a veteran flight attendant with 39 years of service, had done such a thing. Yesterday I mentioned the story to a flight attendant who is a member of my family. Her reaction was similar to mine: she was incredulous.

My thoughts flew to Doreen Welsh. The only crew member on the flight to have been physically injured, it has been reported that she also has suffered from post-traumatic stress. I could only imagine how devastated she would feel once this new accusation began to circulate. And of course the story did circulate. In no time, other news outlets picked it up, parroting what the AP article had said.

The NTSB hearing got underway this morning, moderated by Robert Sumwalt. Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549, was the first to testify. He told his story once more, and near the end of his testimony he pointedly praised his crew -- all of them -- for their professionalism during the emergency.

Passenger Billy Campbell testified after Capt. Sullenberger. He explained that he had been sitting in seat 25A, a window seat in the second-to-last row of the aircraft. His testimony about what he saw and felt was detailed and evocative.

Mr. Campbell mentioned that after the geese hit the aircraft's engines, Doreen Welsh reassured the passengers in the rear of the plane that everything would be fine. Minutes later the aircraft hit the surface of the Hudson River tail first. Mr. Campbell described the impact as "violent" -- the same descriptor Doreen Welsh had used in several interviews..

Then came his much-anticipated testimony about what Doreen Welsh did next. He did NOT say she opened the door. On the contrary, Mr. Campbell stated that it was a woman passenger who rushed past the flight attendant and attempted to open the door.

Mr. Campbell said that Doreen Welsh intervened with the woman at the door, and at the same time forcefully shouted at the passengers in the aft section of the aircraft, urging them to move quickly to the forward exits to evacuate. He described the flight attendant as "courageous and direct."

In fact, rather than dispute what Doreen Welsh had said months earlier, this passenger's testimony at the NTSB hearing confirmed her story in every way. "She was heroic," he said.

So what's up with that insinuating AP article, and the statement attributed to Robert Sumwalt that impugned Doreen Welsh? Clearly someone spoke imprudently, to say the least.

Early this evening, KDKA in Pittsburgh reported that the NTSB had apologized to Doreen Welsh, and that NTSB spokesman Peter Knudsen "says the AP report was wrong."

"Billy Campbell never contradicted the account of the flight attendant that a passenger opened the rear door," Knudsen said.

Regarding the AP story and Sumwalt's comments, Doreen Welsh told KDKA, "It was very painful and very hurtful especially because I knew none of it was true."

She said of Billy Campbell, "His comments today meant the world to me - I appreciate them - and I thank him from the bottom of my heart."

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RELATED: Click here to view all posts about US Airways Flt 1549 on Aircrew Buzz.