Citation Crash Provides Lessons on Family Assistance

 - March 3, 2020, 9:53 PM

On February 15, 2005, Tricia Coffman did not want her husband to step aboard a private jet the next day. She asked him to fly commercial, worried about his safety.  He promised her that he would be fine and that no matter what he would find his way back to her. The next day, her husband, David Joseph Coffman, Sr., awoke early and departed for a trip from Richmond, Virginia, to Santa Ana, California aboard one of his company’s Cessna Citation 560s.

Operated by Martinair, Circuit City’s Citation 560, N500AT, had scheduled fuel stops in Columbia, Missouri, and Pueblo, Colorado. The twinjet crashed as it headed toward the second fuel stop on a ranch 4 nm east of Pueblo Memorial Airport, killing two crew and all six passengers, including 34-year-old David Coffman.

Tricia Coffman read the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) probable cause citing “the flight crew’s failure to effectively monitor and maintain airspeed and comply with procedures for deice boot activation on the approach, which caused an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover.”

But her story to attendees at the 2020 Air Charter Safety Foundation’s Air Charter Safety Symposium was not about the cause. It was about her personal experience—how she learned of his death; how she explained to her four children, all of whom were too young to fully comprehend; and how her husband’s company and the NTSB handled the aftermath. This experience, where Circuit City embraced her as family, got her through her worst nightmare, she recalled.

Don Chupp, president and CEO of Fireside Partners, which specializes in emergency response programs, in introducing Coffman to attendees at the ACSF symposium on Tuesday, noted that much attention is paid to safety leadership. Equally important, though is leadership on the family assistance. “It’s a responsibility of everyone in this room,” Chupp told attendees. “Even if you are not bought in on the emotional aspect, you’ve got to be bought in on the business aspect. The best countermeasure to protect your house after a bad event is through the people  most directly affected.”

The best way is to stay connected, he added. “When people feel as though they are not cared about, communicated with, and cared for, how do they express that frustration?”  There are at other professions willing to listen if the companies involved don’t, he warned and contended that “taking care of people in a bad scenario is exceedingly simple.” But he added that people will not give themselves permission to do it. Companies have “notify families” in their plan, but never how, by whom, and to what degree involvement comes with it.

Coffman said sometime after the events surrounding the death of her husband, she learned that Circuit City senior executives were advised to avoid too much contact with the surviving families because anything they could say may be used later against them in a lawsuit. The CEO of Circuit City at the time, W. Alan McCollough, responded he didn’t care—let them sue. He was going to do the right thing.

Eric Jonas, senior v-p of human resources, broke the news to Coffman on February 16, sometime after lunch. Her voice quivered at times as she recalled the events that had occurred 15 years earlier. She remembered being told, but not much what was said. She was in a fog. She made a couple of calls to family members to share the news and then remembered sitting on the ground, wondering what good could have come out of this. Coffman said she had lived her life understanding that what had come her way was for the general good, even if she couldn’t see it at the time. But at that moment, she said she could not have seen any good. She remembered seeing a bus pull up down the street and wondering how the rest of the world was moving on as hers had stopped.

At that point, her four-year-old David came into the room and she realized she would have to share the news with him, her three-year-old daughter Sarah, and 15-month-old twins Alexander and Sydney.

Not able to fully grasp or believe the news, she called the county sheriff’s department in Pueblo for confirmation. She was told at the time that seven were found and an eighth was still being located. In Coffman’s mind, the eighth was her husband David. He promised he would return to her. The sheriff’s office then gave her a contact with the NTSB. The investigator was en route to the crash scene at the time and did not have much information. But she was advised that chances weren’t good that he survived. The next day she received a call that the eighth was located.

Coffman then felt a need to go to the scene. She began to research flights, a hard task given the busy ski season. Circuit City executives called and asked if they could make arrangements for her to visit the scene.

The next day a van arrived with Circuit City human resources executives on board to take her to the airport. They told her not to worry about anything but clothes. Baskets of toys, diapers, food, all awaited her and her children at the hotel in Pueblo.

Circuit City had notified the airport and security detail met them at the airport, whisking them through security and onto the airplane before other passengers with as much ease as possible. On the airplane, the crew, notified of the grieving family’s arrival, came back to introduce themselves and said they were aware of the situation. In Denver, the family was similarly escorted through the airport, luggage handled for them and brought to cars awaiting them. 

There she met with a person the company had assigned to see to everything through her stay in Pueblo—a “guardian angel,” Coffman said.

When they arrived counselors were there, as was the Red Cross, and officials from the sheriff’s office to make sure they had food and anything else they could need.

The next morning, they met with the NTSB and went to the crash site. The kids initially remained in the car as Coffman looked at the wreckage site, trying to make sense of what happened and where David Coffman may have been during the scene. There was a small memorial set up on the ranch with flowers. Her oldest had left the car, drawing a smiley face in the dirt, saying he wanted his dad to know he was there and he wanted him to be happy.

She later called the coroner asking to see her husband but was informed it was a violent crash and her husband was not recognizable. Given the fact she could not see him, she still had a hard time grasping it was true and didn’t want to believe it.

Later Coffman received dog tags that her husband had worn. The NTSB had found them and asked that they be handed over to Tricia Coffman at the appropriate time. The fact that her husband was on the airplane made no sense to her. David Coffman was with different passengers than she had expected. But then Tricia Coffman learned there were two airplanes on the trip and David Coffman was originally aboard Circuit City’s Citation 560 N500FK. During the refueling stop in Missouri, he agreed to move to the other Citation jet, N500AT, after learning of an imbalance of passengers aboard the two aircraft.

She had met executives from Martinair and said she recognized their grief. They had lost as well.

When she returned home, David Coffman’s vehicle was in the driveway. Circuit City had arranged for its return. The company later had held a memorial service at their offices and telecast it to regional offices.

During that service, the human resources director—the same who had made that first call—told employees: “This is our family. We need to wrap our arms around these people…forever. This is our family.” And as such, shortly after the CEO of the company, as well as his wife, came to Coffman’s house. Coffman said she did not know really who they were, she was still in a fog. But she did know he came with a bag of books and sat on the floor and read to her daughter. His wife built Lego with her son. These visits continued regularly every other Sunday. On the odd Sundays, the president of the stores would visit. “They took care of us,” she said. This meant excursions to restaurants, movies, and parks to make sure she and her family got out of the house. Circuit City also saw to them financially, continuing pay and full bonuses for a year and health care for three years.

A year later a memorial was held in Pueblo commemorating the loss. One item still missing for Coffman was her husband’s favored watch. She wanted to pass it along to her eldest son, but it had not been found. She and another widow, who was still missing her spouse’s wedding ring, went a day in advance to look for the lost items at the wreckage site. After an exhaustive search, they had nearly given up the search for the small items on the vast ranch. When she did discover them, just by a lark and nowhere near where they would have expected to be found, Coffman said she felt that closure, that somehow David Coffman had found his way back to her.

Coffman stayed in constant contact with NTSB, calling them periodically with questions. She read the probable cause to the audience at the safety symposium and noted the regulatory changes and congressional interest that surrounded it. She said she had participated in meetings and appeared before congressional panels. But her focus was not so much on that. It was on her interactions with the company and how her family was taken care of in the aftermath. The fact that everyone dealt with her directly was a big help, she said.

Looking back at the day she sat on the floor, she said, “to me, Circuit City was the positive. NTSB was the positive.” Her children have vague recollections of the time, but they remember the trips to the park, she said.

Comments

Spot on.