BUFFALO, N.Y. — “There are certain events in life that never leave you and this was certainly one in my case," said U.S. Rep Chris Collins (R-NY 27th) regarding the crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009.
“My commissioner of emergency services was on the phone with me," Collins recalled, of the first notification he received of the crash which occurred when Collins served as Erie County Executive.
As he only lived two miles from the crash in Clarence Center which claimed 50 lives, and as Erie County’s top elected official, Collins responded to the scene and is still haunted by what he encountered.
“It was surreal, I mean ...you can't prepare for this. It was like a scene out of a movie, but it was real. And you could see the flames…,” Collins recalled, his voice trailing off momentarily.
“It was obvious there were no survivors. I got a call from the head of the ECMC emergency department and they were calling in their physicians, and I had to tell him there won't be any ambulances heading to ECMC. So then it was a matter of just trying to coordinate a certain level of chaos, and who was doing what...and that's when the bureaucracy entered."
A decade later, Collins remembered a sense of frustration over being told not to communicate what he knew to the loved ones of those on the doomed flight.
He claims those directives came from officials at the FAA and The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) which operates the Buffalo Niagara international Airport, which flight 3407 was approaching when it disappeared from radar just minutes before its expected arrival.
“By 1 am (nearly three hours after the plane went down) they still would not release information on the flight and you can imagine the desperation of the families who in the pit of their stomach knew what happened. And I'd been County Executive all of a year... and I finally looked around and I said it's time to make an announcement. We know it is flight 3407, we know it was coming from Newark, we know who was on the flight, we know there were no survivors, and it’s time to let these families know. But again I was shut down. Until I finally looked as them and said, ‘you know what? I don’t work for you.’ And so I went to the (news) cameras and I was the one who did acknowledge to the press and to the families it was flight 3407, it did originate in Newark and there were no survivors."
Collins was unsuccessful in his bid to be reelected as county executive in 2011. But Flight 3407 would follow him to Washington when he was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives, where he still finds himself dealing with efforts to undo measures to increase pilot training and flight safety in the wake of the crash, and which were passed before he got there.
Collins, currently facing a federal indictment charging him with insider trading and lying to the FBI, believes the threat of those measures to be rolled back remains palpable.
“It’s been an ongoing battle,” said Collins. “It’s one of the few situations where Senator Schumer and I are in agreement that we cannot reduce these hours. The attempt to roll back some of these changes is ongoing by the regional airlines. But God bless the (3407) families who have never relented coming to Washington to make sure the passage of time would not dilute their effort in memory of their lost loved ones to keep the skies safe."
However, as recently as last summer, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, while discussing a pilot shortage, hinted the more stringent training requirements might be partly to blame.
“We were disappointed that Secretary Chao, while the regulations have not been rolled back, was clearly using words that were concerning. I called her on the phone and talked to her about it, and sent a letter signed by several individuals. So while they have not been rolled back, it's a battle we have to continue," Collins said.
Ten years later, the nation is led by a President who campaigned for, and has practiced a pattern of deregulation. And Chao is a member of his cabinet.
“I have no concerns there,” said Collins, when asked if he felt President Trump would support rolling back the increased training hours for pilots mandated after the crash of Flight 3407 which was determined to have occurred due to pilot error.
“I’ll continue to fight that tooth and nail and I'm sure Senator Schumer will as well," Collins said.
Schumer, on Tuesday, agreed that the regulations put in place in the wake of the crash are still under threat, although he pointed to the airline industry and its lobbyists as the source of that threat, rather than the President.
“Even under the previous administration and during this one, the airline industry is attempting to roll them back. This has been an extremely successful law and we must be vigilant,” Schumer said, while also praising the 3407 families.
“They were relentless, and they were the most effective weapons we had,” said Schumer. “I helped get it done, but without them it wouldn’t have gotten done.”