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Group explains suit over airline safety

Matt Ziemkiewicz said his heart sank when he heard about the deaths of 50 people Feb. 12 when Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed and burned in Clarence Center.

It happens with every plane crash with fatalities.

Ziemkiewicz relives the moment when he heard that his sister Jill, a flight attendant, was among the 230 people who died July 17, 1996, when TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

"Every time we hear about a plane crash," Ziemkiewicz said, "we sink because it brings us back to our moment."

"It's ruined every one of these families," he said of Flight 3407. "It doesn't go away. Healing doesn't mean forgetting."

And for Ziemkiewicz, president of the National Air Disaster Alliance/ Foundation, it also means doing something to prevent air tragedies.

Ziemkiewicz came to Buffalo on Wednesday with fellow members of his group, which he describes as a grass-roots organization dedicated to the families of those killed in aviation accidents.

Many of those air crashes don't have to happen, members of the group said a news conference in Adam's Mark hotel. They call them "deja vu" disasters.

Exactly what brought down the the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 in Clarence remains unknown, but if, as many suspect, icing turns out to be responsible, Ziemkiewicz's group said the crash will be another preventable disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations on icing have been pending before the Federal Aviation Administration since 1996, after a 1994 turboprop crash killed 68 people in Roselawn, Ind.

After that crash, the NTSB concluded that the icing conditions exceeded the airplane's ability to deal with them. The FAA still is studying the recommendations.

Tuesday, the National Air Disaster Alliance filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., accusing the FAA of failing to act for years on icing as well as on the NTSB's runway safety recommendations.

Family members of Flight 3407 victims were at Wednesday's news conference and said they were stunned to learn about the FAA's slowness to act.

"It's very disturbing, very sad, very very sad," said Karen Eckert of Williamsville, whose sister Beverly was one of the more celebrated passengers aboard Flight 3407.

"This is really eye-opening for somebody to lay it out, that this happened way back then, and this was the recommendation," said another Eckert sister, Susan Burke.

Mary Schiavo, a lawyer, aviator and former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, also was in Buffalo.

Schiavo, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ziemkiewicz's group, cited the crash of ValuJet 592, which killed 109 people when it crashed in the Florida Everglades.

The plane was carrying hazardous cargo that caught fire in the cargo hold.

"NADA jumped on it," she said of Ziemkiewicz's group. "It took them five years to get smoke and fire detector equipment in cargo holds," she said.

"You have smoke detectors in your home," she said. "Why not on an airplane?"

Jack and Alice Murphy joined after their son, a pilot, died in a 1991 training flight crash that the NTSB originally labeled pilot error. Murphy, a pilot himself, got the ruling reversed after he filed Freedom of Information requests and showed the plane crashed because of structural defects.

"By ourselves, we're a voice in the wind," Murphy said. "Together we have a little more clout, and we're able to get things done."

The FAA has not responded to the group's lawsuit.

Ziemkiewicz said the main advice he can give to family members of Flight 3407 victims is to look after themselves as they mourn.

He suggested that family members go to his group's Web site, planesafe.org.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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