Profile of the National Transportation Safety Board's Deborah Hersman

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

At the end of a Monday in June, Deborah Hersman was in her L'Enfant Plaza office when she got a page on her BlackBerry from the National Transportation Safety Board command center a few floors below. The first information Hersman received, as the board member on call that day, was akin to the cable news reports on the office TV screens: two Red Line Metro trains smashed together, fatalities suspected.

She and a staffer rushed up North Capitol Street in a personal car and ran into what most commuters experienced in that area: stop-and-start traffic from rush-hour delays, from the blaring emergency response vehicles en route to the Fort Totten scene, from accident-displaced commuters jamming the roadways.

Hersman and her aide had white hard hats in hand and safety vests over their work clothes -- she had changed into steel-toe boots before arriving at the chaotic scene. They found a side street on which to leave their car, walked two blocks to the crash site and surveyed the scene with an additional half-dozen or so NTSB investigators. Each of the five NTSB members is on call for a week at a time and can be dispatched anywhere in the nation when a transportation disaster arises.

This particular Monday, June 22, wasn't even Hersman's day on duty: She was filling in for an out-of-town colleague. Hersman had fronted 15 accident sites as a lead federal agent and, upon arrival, found that this event had plenty of variables that could confuse officials: Was it a derailment or a collision of two moving trains or, as it turned out, one southbound train rear-ending another just before the Fort Totten stop?

The morning after, Hersman returned to the site with only five hours off the job, and the message to the public had progressed away from the initial injury reports and how-to-get-home advice and toward her domain: what actually happened. And for Hersman, that involved a bureaucratic collision with local transportation officials. Her task is to press for facts, despite any on-the-ground interest in averting blame -- damage assessment vs. damage control.

Hersman came out swinging, letting everyone know that she was in charge. She blasted Metro, decrying that the rail agency had ignored a five-year-old NTSB call to retrofit or phase out its oldest, least crashworthy railcars. Later, according to an account by an official on the scene, Hersman demanded that Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. stop talking to the media about the investigation. She insisted that anything he said would likely contradict what she had to say.

On camera and off, Hersman maintained herself as confident, unrattled and authoritative. This moment in the spotlight boosted what was already a calculated ascent in her public career. Only days before the Metro crash, President Obama nominated her to chair the NTSB, which probes every major transportation accident in the United States and issues safety recommendations. Because her nomination is pending, Hersman declined to be interviewed for this article.

A 12-year veteran staffer of Capitol Hill, Hersman helped draft some of the safety legislation that federal agencies are charged with enforcing, adding to her heft as a calm public face for an agency that works often under traumatic conditions. Plus, if she is confirmed, safety advocates say her insider knowledge could come as a rude awakening for federal regulators who aren't used to such a prodding -- and well-informed -- overseer.

"People don't get into a conversation on substantive safety issues without realizing she knows everything there is to know on the topic," said Peter Rogoff, who heads the Federal Transit Administration and worked with Hersman in Congress. "She is one of the folks who knows the code back and forth."

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At 39, Deborah Anne Plummer Hersman would be among the youngest people to chair the NTSB. And West Virginia has played a key role in her rise: Her parents were born there; her former boss, Bob Wise, served in the state's House delegation and later as governor; and the state's junior senator, John D. Rockefeller IV, now chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees NTSB. Rockefeller has described the top job at the agency as "her destiny."

She is the daughter of retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Walt Hersman, who served two tours in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. The eldest of three sisters, she lived in such places as Amman, Jordan, and Madrid as her family moved around the world. By the time she turned 17, the Hersmans had settled in Northern Virginia. But those years abroad shaped her instincts, her friends say, along with the encouragement she received from her parents to explore any opportunity that came her way.

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