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Profile of the National Transportation Safety Board's Deborah Hersman
"She's a take-charge girl," said Denise Taylor, whose friendship with Hersman dates from their days at Virginia Tech. "That's why she has accelerated so fast." Even in college, she was known for midnight stromboli runs and other "G-rated fun," as Taylor calls it. As the residential adviser on her dorm floor, Hersman was a confidante for the lovelorn and homesick, and she created a bulletin board with the names and background information of each girl in her hall as a way to help them get to know one another.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Hersman earned a public-policy master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University. When she was 28 she married her Chantilly High sweetheart, Niel Plummer, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin (they live in Lorton with their three sons, ages 8, 6 and 3). After college, Hersman joined Wise's staff, rising from summer intern to office manager in short order. Some in the office noticed her ability to manage any task given to her; others noticed a knack for detail, verging on the obsessive. While answering phone calls from West Virginians at the front desk, she organized the office Rolodex by typing out all the contact details on standardized cards. "We thought she was crazy," said Jane Mellow, a friend and former colleague in Wise's office. "This is what she spent recess doing!"
Within the past year, she has turned her relentless energy now toward a new outlet: triathlons. She and her sister Valerie train for up to four hours every week.
While working for Wise, Hersman tackled a series of coal-train derailments near Point Pleasant, W.Va. Wise recalled that Hersman delved into on-site visits and pulled community members together in post-accident meetings. She used the power of Wise's senior position on the House Transportation Committee -- and the threat of tough new regulations -- to persuade railway officials to replace sections of tracks and to slow trains to safer speeds. Such events, Wise said, have a pattern of melee and aftermath in which he has seen Hersman's cooler head prevail.
"She was dealing with a very concerned public at their level, not from distant Washington," Wise said. "But she was bringing in the power of the government to bear, with the idea if the railroad didn't comply we would look at other measures that could be taken."
Watching the recent Metro coverage, Wise said Hersman still carries the same qualities she did 15 years ago. "Debbie has a streak in her," he said. "She has a backbone. Don't ever think that you are ever going to push her over."
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The NTSB is a tiny agency by federal standards, with a $90 million annual budget and about 400 employees, most of whom work in investigative roles. Though a Democrat, Hersman joined the board in 2004 as a nominee of President George W. Bush. If confirmed as the NTSB chairman, she will be the third Democrat on the board serving with two Republicans. (Each NTSB member serves a five-year term and can be reappointed, with the chairman and vice chairman serving two-year terms.)
At the site of an accident, the member's job is to be the spokesman for the entire investigation. The most effective know how to talk in sound bites, with Hersman's crisp delivery earning extra on-air minutes during the days after the Metro accident. Because the board members have no regulatory oversight over other agencies, their primary weapon is galvanizing public attention -- shaming other agencies into following its directives.
Sometimes officials strike back. At a House hearing into the Metro accident yesterday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Hersman began with a tense exchange and it escalated quickly. Norton let Hersman know what was on her mind: She was frustrated that the NTSB kept insisting that Metro replace or retrofit its fleet of older cars rather than shift older cars around, as Metro had planned. Hersman tried to respond, but Norton cut her off.
"You knew these people could not possibly replace the trains," Norton said. "Over and over again you said do the impossible, absent any way for them to replace 30 percent of their fleet."
Metro has about 290 of the older railcars and has said it would cost $3 million to replace each one -- an $870 million price tag. In the hearing, Norton and Hersman repeatedly clashed over the cost issue, with an impassioned Norton speaking over Hersman's attempted responses. At one point, Norton pointed out that she was speaking "without fear of contradiction" -- perhaps a backhanded slap at Hersman's original on-the-scene muzzling of Metro's leader.
"We're really not trying to blame anyone for anything," Norton said. "I think the victims and the public [are] entitled to hear any interim steps we can take besides saying spend a gazillion dollars that [Metro] doesn't have. Ms. Hersman, we don't have it either."
Hersman preserved her composure throughout the tension, occasionally folding her arms and shifting in her seat while letting Norton vent. When Hersman's opportunity to speak became clear, she seized it. "We do make recommendations, Ms. Norton, and we don't have to pay for them and so I do recognize the frustration," Hersman said. "But our charge is not to do that part of it. Our charge is to recommend what we think is in the best interest of the safety of the community. We are the conscience and the compass of the transportation industry, and [industry leaders] get to decide if or how they implement it."
Staff writers Lena H. Sun, James Hohmann, Nikita Stewart and Maria Glod contributed to this report.