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Families of victims of Boeing 737 Max crashes to testify at House hearing on aviation safety

The hearing is the third convened by a House subcommittee looking into two fatal crashes.

Deveney Williams, right, wipes a tear from her eye as she and Diana Sotomayor, left, and Hayley Freedman, center, all friends of Samya Rose Stumo, hold up a sign depicting those lost in Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 during a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on the status of the Boeing 737 MAX on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 19, 2019. Stumo was killed in the plane crash. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A Canadian man who lost five family members in one of two crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft is among those scheduled to testify Wednesday at a House aviation subcommittee hearing on the state of aviation safety.

Paul Njoroge lost his wife, Carolyne, his mother-in-law, and his three children, when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed March 10, shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. All 157 passengers and crew members aboard were killed.

It was the second crash involving a Boeing 737 Max jet in less than five months. In October, a Lion Air flight crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 people aboard.

Njoroge remains haunted by what could have been.

“In Canada, Independence Day was celebrated July 1,” Njoroge said in testimony prepared for Wednesday’s hearing. “I stayed buried in my little house, in my grief, hearing the sounds of celebration and fireworks in the sky. But all I could think about was the 737 Max struggling to gain height and eventually diving to the ground, killing my whole family and 152 others.”

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Njoroge is scheduled to be joined by Michael Stumo, whose daughter, Samya Stumo, a health care analyst and grandniece of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, was killed in the crash.

Their testimony is expected to put a human face on the tragedies that killed more than 340 people and led to the worldwide grounding of the entire fleet of 737 Max jets. Multiple inquiries, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division have been launched in the wake of the crashes, which have increased scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration’s process for certifying aircraft are safe.

“I think about their last six minutes a lot,” Njoroge said. “My wife and mum-in-law knew they were going to die. They had to somehow comfort the children during those final moments, knowing they were all their last. I wish I was there with them. It never leaves me that my family’s flesh is there in Ethiopia, mixed with the soil, jet fuel and pieces of the aircraft.”

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, chaired by Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, (D-Ore.), has launched its own investigation into the FAA’s certification process and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has appointed a special review committee to examine the agency’s process. Chao also ordered DOT’s inspector general to conduct his own review.

This is the third hearing held by the committee, but the first to include family members as witnesses. In two previous hearings, lawmakers heard from witnesses including the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

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In his prepared testimony, Njoroge has harsh words for Boeing and federal regulators who certified that the newest version of the company’s popular 737 was safe to fly.

“The FAA should have known that the failure to have triple redundancy in critical safety systems could cause crashes and death,” he said. “They recklessly left Boeing to police itself.”

He also criticized Boeing for seeming to shift blame for the crash on pilots.

"On April 4, three weeks after the deaths of my family, in what I have since learned is a shameful pattern of behavior by Boeing and airplane manufacturers, Boeing shifted focus from the root cause of the crashes — the design flaws in the 737 Max and [ the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system] — and started talking about “foreign-pilot-error,” he said. “Would they have used the term “domestic-pilot-error” if the crash happened in the United States? The term “foreign pilot error” is utter prejudice and a disrespect to pilots and Boeing customers across the world.”

Preliminary investigations into both crashes have focused on an automated system, which is designed to intervene in the event a plane is at risk of stalling. But investigators think false readings from the planes’ angle-of-attack sensors may have triggered the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, known as MCAS, making it impossible for the pilots to regain control of the planes.

In April, Boeing was expected to complete a software fix designed to address concerns with an MCAS, a new feature that was added to the Boeing 737 Max jets to compensate for design changes made to the aircraft. However, technical difficulties have delayed implementation of the software update.

Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer said March 14 pilots were not told about new plane software when Boeing unveiled its 737 Max jets. (Video: Luis Velarde, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Other witnesses expected to appear at the hearing include Dana Schulze, acting director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s office of aviation safety; Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association; Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants; Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO; John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union.