A federal judge has refused to award damages to the widows of the pilot and copilot of a TWA flight that crashed into the Blue Ridge Mountains three years ago, killing all 92 persons aboard, on the grounds that their husbands were negligent in the crash.
U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. said in an opinion released yesterday that the Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers did the best they could to prevent the crash. Among other things, the judge said, the pilots ignored several mechanical warnings alerting them that they were less than 500 feet above the ground as they approached the fog-shrouded mountainside.
Bryan's decision, signed late Tuesday, came in the last of 50 suits filed against TWA or the FAA as a result of the Dec. 1, 1974, crash.
Earlier, seven juries had awarded more than $1 million in damages to relatives of passengers on the flight.And in these cases, the FAA agreed to pay part of the awards, tacitly sharing with TWA responsibility for the crash. Also, relatives of a flight engineer, another member of the flight crew Bryan found negligent received an out-of-court settlement in his case last April.
Phillip Silverman, one of three attorneys appointed by Judge Bryan to handle preliminary matters for the claimonts in all the trials, said he was not surprised by Bryan's decision because in the settlements TWA took the greater responsibility for the crash by agreeing to pay about 70 per cent of the jury award, leaving the federal government to pay about 30 per cent on behalf of the FAA.
The exact split of responsibility between TWA and FAA, Silverman said, is not publicly known because the settlement papers have been sealed.
George Farrell, attorney for Marlene Brock, the widow of pilot Richard Brock, and Donna Kresheck, widow of copilot Leonard Kresheck, said Bryan's ruling is "sort of a strange decision." He would not elaborate. Farrell said yesterday he had not yet seen the opinion.
The two women are working in Los Angeles, Farrell said, "trying to make a living for their children."
In the first judicial opinion cendered in any of the cases (the others were resolved either by a jury or an out-of-court settlement) Bryan said it was the duty of the traffic controllers to see that the plane did not collide with any other aircraft. But it was up to the flight crew to insure that the plane did not hit the ground, Bryan said.
Bryan also found that pilot Brock should have kept the plane at a proper altitude and that it was not the air traffic controller's responsibility.
"The crew of TWA flight 514 was required to know the areas of the U.S. designated as mountainous," Bryan said.
A full minute prior to impact the altitude alert horn sounded in the cockpit, indicating the aircraft was 500 feet above terrain, Bryan said. The horn sounded two more times within a minute of the crash. "Apparently it was ignored by the entire crew," Bryan said, "Nor did any member of the crew as required by TWA training procedures verbally respond to the sounds.
Bryan said that if crew members had not been negligent they would have had a last chance to save the plane.
Of the 50 cases filed on behalf of 56 of the victims, 41 were settled privately out of court.
The jury awards range from $36,000 to $546,488.84. The latter figure granted a year ago to the family of a Chapel Hill, N.C., woman. The jury awarded $48,714.81 to her husband, $200,000 to her 12-year-old daughter and $250,000 to her 7-year-old son.
The statute of limitations prohibited the filing of suits growing out of the crash after Dec. 2, 1976.
The TWA jetliner was on its "inaugural" flight from Indianapolis to Washington National Airport with one stop at Columbus, Ohio, the judge's opinion noted, but fierce winds and heavy rains diverted it to Dulles International Airport. The flight crew and air traffic controller apparently misunderstood each other during the plane's descent to Dulles, Bryan said. At 11:09 a.m. the plane sheared off tree tops, struck a rocky outcrop, broke up and caught fire, scattering charred bodies and parts of bodies over an area about the size of two football fields.
"Suffice it to say that this court finds no lack of ordinary care or violation of any duty owed the aircraft on part of the air traffic controller after he actually saw the peril of the aircraft," Bryan said. "The last clear chance to avoid this accident was had by the crew, not the controller. If the crew had only heeded one of the many warnings available to them and which they should have heeded right up to the 11:09 alert warning, the crash could have been avoided."