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Transportation's Real Mover
Coolly, Hersman Is NTSB's Very Face of Safety

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."

* * *

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.

"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."

* * *

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.

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