The Face of the NTSB: Deborah Hersman

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman is not only leading the investigation of the crash of Asiana Flight 214, but many political insiders say she’s a rising star in Washington, D.C.

By Raj Mathai and Jon Schuppe
|  Friday, Jul 12, 2013  |  Updated 2:59 PM CDT
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NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai interviews NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai interviews NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

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RAW VIDEO: NTSB Briefing Focuses on Flight Attendants

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman provides information on the flight attendants of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
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In the week since Asiana Flight 214 crash landed at San Francisco International Airport, the on-scene face of the government has been National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, a blunt-talking investigator known for her poise and orderliness.

She doesn't fly planes, but she's the daughter of a Vietnam War fighter pilot and surrounds herself with expert airmen. She has a motorcycle license, but doesn't ride, because, as a 43-year-old mother of three boys, "I try to minimize the risks," she told NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai.

Her job requires her to show up at the sites of major air, rail and motor vehicle accidents. So seeing her in town often means something has gone wrong. But "I don't want people to think I'm associated with disasters," Hersman said.

There is an uplifting part of her job, she said: getting to see people respond to catastrophe in heroic and selfless ways -- San Franciscans included.

"Sometimes we see the very best of communities, the very best of people in these difficult circumstances, and I can tell you that I've certainly seen some of that here," she said.

Hersman has been an unmistakable force at the NTSB since she first arrived as a 39-year-old in 2004, a West Virginia-born Democrat nominated to the post by Republican President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, reappointed her to a five-year term and named her chairman. During her tenure, she has overseen investigations of several major accidents, including the 2009 collision of two Metro trains in Washington, D.C., the fire inside a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston and the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane near Buffalo. In each instance, she has showed a fearlessness in facing down the transportation industry and rival government agencies. She has irritated critics for her outspoken critique of safety lapses, and for the details she releases to the press.

The aggrieved include the Air Lines Pilots Association, which said this week it was "stunned by the amount of detailed operational data from on-board recorders" from Flight 214 released by the board "so soon into the investigation."

Hersman is unapologetic, but she also says she's looking for ways to do her job better. She says she listens to those around her.

"I learn from people who have more knowledge than I do," she said.

Hersman's background is on Capitol Hill, where she served as a senior aide to West Virginia Rep. Bob Wise and as a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. That's where she sharpened her skills as a bureaucrat, but also as a safety advocate, helping draft legislation overseeing the operation of motor carriers, pipelines and Amtrak.

Although she's known for her openness, Hersman stressed that it's too early to talk about what caused the July 6 crash in San Francisco.

"I know it feel like a long time for people, but we want to make sure we have a really full picture of what happened here before we reach any conclusions," she said.

That could take as long as a year.

But she added that if any safety issues arise before then, she and the board will be quick to issue recommendations on how to avoid similar accidents.

"This is obviously a high priority for us and we're going to be focusing a lot of resources on it and to get it done as quickly as possible," Hersman said.

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