Crash investigator finds himself in spotlight NTSB official attempts to call attention, again, to train safety problems

April 02, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday was a rare day for Ed Dobranetski, a chance offered by the Silver Spring train crash to personally carry the message of safety on the rails to Capitol Hill.

As chief of major railroad investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), he usually operates in bureaucratic shadows, illuminating details that enable the board to determine the "probable cause" of an accident and to glean from it lessons for safer railroad operations.

He is the Joe Friday of the rails -- bland, soft-spoken, a "just-the-facts-ma'am" guy who encases his emotions in a hard shell and calmly looks for clues, large and small, that might explain why a disaster occurred.

"I just collect the facts," he says.

But last week he was part of a team that went before a House committee to vent his agency's frustration with the failure of federal regulators and the railroad industry to adopt many of its safety recommendations -- some dating back a quarter-century.

"In the accidents we investigate, we are identifying the same safety problems over and over and over again," James A. Arena, an NTSB official, told a House transportation subcommittee as Mr. Dobranetski sat beside him.

Pointing to the board's frequent recommendation that railroads employ "positive train separation" systems -- a technology that prevents trains from colliding, Mr. Arena said: "If this type of technology were in place, we would probably not be mourning 11 people killed in Silver Spring."

Without the power to force changes upon the industry, the board's "strongest impact" is in making recommendations and repeating them again and again, Mr. Dobranetski said in a recent interview.

"We have to do a real good job of selling," he said, "and sometimes it's unfortunate that the selling comes in lives."

The memory of the Feb. 16 collision of an Amtrak train and a Maryland Rail Commuter service train was fresh.

Less than an hour and a half after that fiery crash -- before the smoke had cleared and the bodies had been removed -- he was examining the smoldering and twisted wreckage, putting 30 years of railroad experience on the line again as chief federal investigator of the accident.

He had cleared the driveway at his Gaithersburg home late that snowy Friday afternoon, eaten supper and settled down to do there's been a train crash in Silver Spring.

Minutes later, after phone conversations with colleagues, he grabbed a briefcase and a suitcase that are always packed for these quick getaways (he has one of each at home and another set at his downtown office) and headed out the door -- not to return for four days.

These are busy days in Mr. Dobranetski's shop. The safety board is investigating 17 rail accidents that have occurred since Jan. 1, killing 22 people. At the Silver Spring site, he led a team of dozens of experts, many from industry and labor, in the initial phase of what will be a yearlong probe.

Looking back at the 34 investigations in which he has been involved, Mr. Dobranetski said: "We always came up with TC probable cause." Confident but not cocky, he predicted: "We will find what we will believe to have been the most probable cause" of the Silver Spring crash.

Sandy-haired, clad in aviator glasses, blue blazer and gray slacks, he'd have to make a real effort to stand out in a crowd. But when the chips are down, he makes his presence known.

"He impressed me as a person who was really in control -- in charge," said W. L. "Sonny" Hamm, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers official who was on Mr. Dobranetski's team at the site of the Silver Spring crash. "He's very professional."

Without waiting for completion of Mr. Dobranetski's investigation, the safety board in mid-March made an "urgent" recommendation to MARC, asking for modifications that would ease escape from its cars in an emergency. Without modifications, the MARC cars "pose an unacceptable risk to the public," James E. Hall, chairman of the safety board, told a House panel. Even before the recommendations, MARC had announced that it would make some of the changes.

At 53, Mr. Dobranetski has a decade of NTSB investigations under his belt. A civil engineer by training, he spent 19 years working for U.S. Steel rail subsidiaries, among other things investigating accidents. When that career was ended by downsizing, he followed the advice of a friend and applied for an NTSB job.

"A baptism of fire" ensued when he joined the agency in May 1986.

"I started in the morning, and by noon I was on a plane going to Boston" to investigate a two-train collision, he recalled.

Other investigations followed quickly -- including the Jan. 4, 1987, accident in Chase, when a Conrail train, operated by an engineer impaired by marijuana, ran a stop signal and crossed the path of a speeding Amtrak train. Sixteen people died in the collision and 174 were injured.

"Get up there," Mr. Dobranetski recalled a supervisor telling him emphatically on the phone that Sunday afternoon. "My family was off shopping, so I left them a note and said, 'See you in a few days.' "

He counts that accident among the worst he has encountered.

"I don't think it's something that you ever get used to," Mr. Dobranetski said. But he admitted that "you develop some type of immunity," a defense mechanism that lets him work amid the carnage.

"I'm sure you won't understand it," he added almost apologetically, "but it's fun. I like my work."

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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