It’s always safety first for Ellen Engleman.
The new safety chief for the nation’s transportation system lives on a houseboat, and she always makes sure that the number of guests doesn’t exceed the number of life preservers. She even has lifejackets for her cats.
After her nomination by President Bush to head the National Transportation Safety Board, Engleman began studying for her pilot’s license so that she would better understand plane crash investigations and safety issues.
This month, she chaired her first hearing, part of the investigation into the Jan. 8 crash of US Airways Express Flight 5481 in Charlotte, N.C., which killed all 21 aboard.
That’s one of the constant reminders she says her job gives her about the importance of safety.
“Every few hours my pager goes off and I learn of an accident. Every few hours someone dies, and I hear about it,” she said. “I think every life is precious.”
She says she wants the NTSB to be a more vocal advocate for safety reforms. One of her first actions as chairman was to urge harsher penalties for repeat drunk drivers.
It’s just a 10-minute walk from Engleman’s houseboat to her office. Sometimes, when she can’t sleep, she’s at her desk at 2 a.m.
“This is going to sound pathetic, but I really enjoy work,” said Engleman, 43, whose idea of relaxation is spending a weekend a month in Jacksonville, Fla., with the Naval Reserve, where she has been a public affairs officer for three years.
Before leading the NTSB, Engleman headed the Transportation Department’s Research and Special Programs Administration, where she strengthened enforcement of pipeline safety rules and planned the Coast Guard’s transition to the Department of Homeland Security.
Her energy is legendary among colleagues and friends.
Former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said NTSB employees should beware. “She’s going to have everyone there tired,” Martin said.
The NTSB investigates all plane crashes and other major transportation accidents, such as fatal train derailments. It also recommends moves that might prevent future accidents.
The NTSB’s five board members are dispatched individually to major transportation accidents. The chairman usually goes to the biggest disasters, often commercial plane crashes.
That’s generally when the public notices who holds the job.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Engleman during her confirmation hearing last winter that the public will look to her for reassurance during a catastrophe.
Engleman’s response was typical of what she tells a lot of people: “I take this privilege to serve very, very seriously.”
“There’s nobody I’ve ever met who’s more committed to service and getting the job done,” said Jeffrey Runge, who worked with her at the Transportation Department and now heads the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Engleman was born in Indiana and grew up in Florida with her younger sister. Her father, who died when she was in college, was an entrepreneur. Her mother was a civil servant who, among other things, was a field representative in the Social Security Administration whose job was to ensure that people received their benefits.
“My mother made a difference,” Engleman said.
She earned English and law degrees at Indiana University and found her way to public service by way of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1992. She’d held government affairs posts at Indiana-based GTE North Inc., part of the former telecommunications company GTE, and for Direct Relief International, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based charity that sends medical supplies to poor areas around the world. She said she went to Harvard because she wanted a master’s in public administration to add to her “backpack of skills.”
Martin was a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics when she met Engleman.
“Here’s this incredibly active, outgoing -- I cannot tell you how filled with energy this young woman is -- who’s so excited to be there,” said Martin, a former Illinois congresswoman. “She literally sought me out and said, ‘I will do anything to spend some time with you.’ ”
Martin hired her as her personal assistant.
Engleman later became head of Indiana-based Electricore Inc., a nonprofit that promotes new transportation technology. In 2001, she was tapped by Bush to lead the Research and Special Programs Administration, which runs safety and research programs and oversees pipeline safety.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Engleman spent 38 consecutive hours working at the agency’s communications center, helping to get planes grounded, secure pipelines and ensure that medical supplies got to New York City.
When reminded of that long day, she shrugs and says everyone else worked just as hard.