For Ellen Engleman, safety on the water is more than just a principle.
The National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman, whose no-nonsense
style became the public face of the federal investigation into the
Staten Island Ferry accident last week, lives on the water, her
houseboat floating in the Potomac River.
And it is fitting that the accident that propelled her into the
unrelenting glare of the New York media was not a jetliner crash.
Engleman has made it clear since her presidential appointment in March
that she wants the safety board to be known for its work beyond
"The Staten Island Ferry accident was our third major marine accident
this year," Engleman said in a telephone interview from an Amtrak
train bound for Washington on Friday. Engleman's first on-scene
accident came in May, when seven were killed by a boiler explosion on
the S.S. Norway. Weeks later, nearly a dozen were lost in an accident
on a charter fishing boat in Oregon.
The numbers of the dead in a single marine accident do not add up to
triple digits the way they do when a large commercial airliner
crashes. But, as Engleman said in a speech this summer: "When the
phone rings in the family home and the family is informed that they've
lost a loved one, the pain is no different ... The pain is still
The NTSB is a relatively tiny agency -- just 429 employees --
responsible not just for aviation accidents, but also marine, highway,
railroad and pipeline accidents, with a focus on issuing safety
recommendations to prevent future accidents. Most of its employees and
resources are devoted to aviation, and it's the jetliner crashes that
get the media attention. But Engleman said she'd like to see other
modes of transportation get more resources -- without taking away from
what is devoted to aviation. And in the process, she hopes to raise
the bar of safety in other modes of transportation to approach the
high level of safety established for aviation.
Engleman comes off as someone who has not strayed far from her
Midwestern roots. She is open, outgoing, unpretentious, with a touch
of eccentricity. Just before her 40th birthday, she joined the Navy --
NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman
and chief investigator Robert Ford examine the ferry's wreckage.
serves as a public affairs officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves,
attending drills in Jacksonville, Fla. She shares her houseboat, named
Potomac Freedom, with several cats. ("More than one," is all she'll
say.) And yes, each cat has its own life jacket.
Her status as a single woman is about to change; Engleman is getting
married in December. "The most wonderful man," she said, "and
good-looking, too." On her wedding registry Web site, she asks for
donations to Vitamin Angel Alliance, a nonprofit aid group that
distributes vitamins to people in impoverished regions of the world.
Engleman helped found the alliance, based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
She has a law degree from Indiana University and a master's from
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Before coming to the safety
board, she was a top official at the U.S. Department of
Transportation, responsible for the safety of hazardous materials
shipments and natural gas and oil pipelines.
Friends expect her career to keep going. "She's somebody I believe
will continue to rise," said Howard Schiffer, who said Engleman was
instrumental in helping him found Vitamin Angel Alliance. "She's not
afraid to take on big projects. She's totally committed."
As it happened, Engleman was in New York on Wednesday, making a
speech, watching a demonstration of a runway safety device at Kennedy
Airport, and checking out plans for the AirTrain. When the ferry
slammed into the dock at the St. George Terminal that afternoon and
One city councilman has said
that the pilot collapsed at the controls of the 310-foot ferry,
the Andrew J. Barberi.
Engleman's pager went off, she was in the cab of Amtrak's new Acela
train, talking to the engineer. Instead of heading home to Washington,
she headed for Staten Island.
Engleman said she will keep a close watch on the ferry investigation
as it progresses. "This was a horrific accident," she said. "And I
have a personal investment at an emotional level."
Engleman NTSB Chair