By Gary Walker
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the deadly Sept. 29 single-plane crash at Santa Monica Airport was delayed by work furloughs during the recent federal government shutdown, according to officials.
In a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Santa Monica), National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote that the agency was forced to halt its probe of the Cessna Citation 525A crash that killed four people — Mark John Benjamin, 63, head of the prominent Santa Monica development firm Morley builders; his 28-year-old son, Luke; 28-year-old Lauren Winkler; and Kyla Dupont, 53.
The government shutdown began Oct. 1, just two days after the crash, and lasted through Oct. 16.
“The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigator shortly after learning about the accident. As you know, this occurred just days before the government shutdown,” Hersman wrote to Waxman on Nov. 15.
“Our investigator remained on-scene to collect the perishable evidence, including interviewing witnesses, then was placed in furlough status until funding resumed. I believe that safety has been compromised by stopping this investigation and many others, not to mention the accidents that occurred that we did not launch during the shutdown,” Hersman continued.
A preliminary report on the crash issued last month by the National Transportation Safety Board did not offer insight into the cause of the crash.
Waxman had called for an “immediate and thorough” investigation of the crash, which has spurred an increasing number of calls for closure the city-owned but federally operated airfield.
The Santa Monica City Council filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration on Oct. 30 in order to “establish the city’s right to control future use of the Santa Monica Airport property, which the city has long owned,” according to the suit.
Local activists, including many from a newly formed group called Airport2Park, are pushing officials to turn the land where the airport sits into a public park. Others want to restrict flights.
“My [previous] letter expressed my concern that the government shutdown could undermine the investigation by preventing the timely collection of evidence. Your response confirms my concern,” Waxman wrote Monday in a response to Hersman.
The congressman goes on to slam colleagues who supported the shutdown.
“I recognize that the shutdown was not your fault. It was the decision of House Republicans to hold the government hostage to their extreme political demands. Your letter underscores how senseless and irresponsible the shutdown was,” he wrote.
“Nevertheless,” Waxman continued, “I am concerned about any impact on your ability to conduct a through investigation of this fatal crash. I urge you to redouble your efforts on this investigation to make up for any impediments caused by the shutdown.”
Hersman wrote that her agency is working “as quickly as possible so that the community can understand the circumstances of the accident.”