The chairman of a House subcommittee yesterday called for legislation to make the Federal Aviation Administration responsible for rescuing survivors if planes using National Airport crash into the Potomac.
The District of Columbia now holds jurisdiction over the river, where an Air Florida jetliner crashed in January, killing 78 people. The proposed legislation, which is yet to be introduced, would let the FAA contract with D.C. for rescue facilities, but would require the federal agency to pay for any new equipment required.
Rescue teams that responded to the accident at the 14th Street bridge have been criticized for lacking rafts and boats and using the wrong type of helicopter to pull people from the water. Six people made it to the surface after the jet sank, but one drowned before rescue workers could get him out.
Rep. William H. Gray (D-Pa.), chairman of the District of Columbia subcommittee on government operations and metropolitan affairs, backed the legislation at hearings yesterday morning examining rescue units' response to the air crash and a Metrorail accident the same day in which three people died.
In a statement to the subcommittee, D.C. Deputy Fire Chief Maurice D. Kilby said the city would endorse "any legislation that would contribute to an enhanced capability" for water rescues. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said D.C. wanted federal resources and would oppose giving up jurisdiction for water crash rescues to the FAA.
Kilby and Fraternal Order of Police representative Gary Hankins both said the city should obtain a Vietnam-type "Huey" helicopter for water rescues -- the U.S. Park Police helicopter that pulled survivors out is considered too small for the job -- and a hovercraft. Total cost for the two craft was variously estimated at $1.1 million to $1.8 million.
Walter Luffsey, associate administrator of the FAA, which owns and operates National, testified that the agency opposed proposals to give it responsibility for Potomac rescues. Around the country, local governments lead rescue efforts away from airport property, and making an exception for National is neither necessary nor desirable, he said.
Luffsey testified the FAA does not feel it should pay for any new equipment D.C. may feel it needs. "Funding should be programmed . . . through the District's appropriations process," his statement to the subcommittee said.
National, like all U.S. airports, is not required by federal rules to take responsibility for rescues in water off its property. Nonetheless, the airport does maintain four rescue boats, six liferafts and two inflatable "hoses" for survivors to cling to, he said.
During questioning, Gray criticized the lack of federal responsibility. But National Airport director James Wilding said that many airports make preparations, anyway. "There is a feeling that airport operators around the country are fairly responsible people."
Joseph Schwind, testifying for the Air Line Pilots Association, said that, among U.S. airports, "Washington National is one of the tops" in water rescue capability but still falls short of acceptable standards. The pilots association backed proposals to give the FAA a greater responsibility for water rescue near National and to improve lifejackets in use.
In other testimony, a representative of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association called for purchase of more breathing masks, for use in subway crashes; more staffing in rescue units; and better radios.