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By Sylvia Adcock
Staff Writer

 
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

 home a 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 aviation disasters.

"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 there."

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 -- and now

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."

Ellen Engleman NTSB Chair

 

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