Self-described “knucklehead 17-year-old” Robert Sumwalt III was growing up in Columbia’s Heathwood neighborhood in December of 1973 when, on the way to visit his girlfriend in his green Triumph Spitfire, a news bulletin came over the car radio.
“I heard that there had been a plane crash. A twin-engine corporate airplane had crashed near Old Barnwell Road. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that would be really neat to go see a plane crash.’ ”
Sumwalt said he “drove around stopping at filling stations” asking for directions and finally found the crash site “thanks to the coroner coming speeding by with flashing lights.” (The site was not far from May 23’s deadly airplane crash that took the life of Columbia businessman Bob Russell).
Sumwalt jumped out of his Triumph and caught up with the coroner who was getting out of his car, too.
“I just got up right behind him, ducked under that yellow tape with him and went to the crash site. There were no human remains that I could see, but I did see the plane wrapped around a tree. I had always been fascinated with plane crashes, and aviation as well. I remember wondering how they would piece the crash back together and figure it all out.
“That was truly a life-changing event for me because it led me down a particular career path.”
Fast forward 42 years.
On May 13, Sumwalt, one of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board, stood before a crowd of local and national media explaining what had been learned so far in the investigation of the Amtrak train derailment that had occurred the day before near the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia. Eight passengers on the train, Amtrak’s No. 188 out of Washington and headed for New York, were killed and more than 200 injured.
The investigation into the cause is continuing.
“It was very intense. Accident scenes are all so sad. I approach it as our efforts are to learn from what happened and to keep those things from happening again.”
Sumwalt said people often mistake his position as chairman of the NTSB, an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating transportation accidents, determining probable cause and issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents. The assumption is likely made because Sumwalt so often appears on national television, representing the NTSB.
Sumwalt explained that the agency employs 430 employees. Of those, there’s always a small group on standby in case an accident occurs. Sumwalt calls that group “the Go Team.”
“If you’re on the Go Team and there’s an accident to be investigated, you go. The team works Monday to Monday. A board member is assigned to the team. The board member is the face of the investigation.”
And that means the board member is the NTSB spokesman.
In the case of the Philadelphia accident, Sumwalt was on the Go Team. He was in Florida when, at 10:15 p.m. on the Tuesday night of the derailment, he got the call to go. He arrived at the Philadelphia airport early the next morning, met by an FBI agent at the gate.
Sumwalt said being on site at an accident scene is “organized chaos. You’ve got local responders who are doing their thing. Our (NTSB) processes are pretty well rehearsed. We know the investigation process and we just get it done. Everybody is a specialist in their own special areas of an investigation.
“Generally speaking, the investigators are at it all day. We have a meeting at 6 p.m. every night where everybody talks about what they’ve done, what they’ve found. They are long, intense days. Full of challenges.”
The biggest challenge Sumwalt faces at an accident site is speaking to the families of the victims. “It’s the hardest thing I do.
“I pray for strength before I go into these meetings with the families,” he said. “I try to speak from the heart, not like a bureaucrat.”
Growing up in Columbia
Speaking of speaking, if you have an ear for South Carolina accents, you’ll note that Sumwalt’s is the real deal.
He was born and raised in Columbia, the son of Joyce and Bobby Sumwalt Jr., a successful general contractor in commercial construction throughout the state.
Sumwalt attended Brennan Elementary, Crayton Junior High and Dreher High schools.
While growing up in the capitol city, Sumwalt said learning to ride horses at two farms – Belle Grove, on Bluff Road, and Hickory Top Farm, off the Sumter Highway – had a huge impact upon his life. He noted one particular riding teacher, Betty Belser.
Belser, wife of Columbia attorney Heyward Belser, was an accomplished horsewoman and a remarkably demanding riding teacher at Belle Grove.
“I just remember my love for riding and my love and respect for Betty Belser,” Sumwalt said. “I thought the world of her and wanted to do well for her.”
On rainy days, if riding instruction was cancelled, Belser taught “theory lessons” at her brick home on Albion Road near Dreher. Students sat in a small den and had to learn a slew of horse facts, including the physiology of the animal.
Sumwalt remembered those study sessions, ticking off the parts of a horse’s leg. “Hoof, coronet, pastern, fetlock, cannon … I jumped on those theory lessons like crazy. I enjoyed the discipline of really wanting to know more about something you’re really interested in.”
Sumwalt used that same discipline when he learned to fly.
‘I work for the traveling public’
While still a teen, he took flying lessons at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. “My parents had prohibited me from doing it, but I did it anyway.”
When he entered the University of South Carolina in 1974, with a private pilot’s license in hand, Sumwalt said he “marched into the Dean of Students office and told him we needed a flying club. The dean said ‘No’ and I said, ‘Well, I just thought since Clemson has had a flying club since 1928, we should have one too.’ The dean told me to sit back down.”
Shortly thereafter, USC had a flying club and two small airplanes.
After graduating USC, Sumwalt piloted the university’s aircraft, flying school officials where they needed to go.
In 1981, he began flying for Piedmont Airlines, which later became U.S. Airways. In 2004, SCANA Corp. offered him a job managing its aviation department and in 2006, President George Bush appointed him to the NTSB board.
“During my airline career, I was really passionate about doing safety work. I had helped the NTSB with some accident investigations. All through college, I had had a passion for reading NTSB accident reports. So, I decided to go for it. Political appointments are hard to get, but in this case, a long shot worked out.”
When I asked Sumwalt where he lives these days, he laughed and said, “I’ve been trying to figure out that for years.”
Sumwalt, who is married to Anne and has a college-aged daughter Mackenzie, splits his time between an apartment in Washington, D.C. and his home here in Columbia.
He said he tries to get “home every two weeks.”
That means a lot of travel, but for Sumwalt, that’s just part and parcel of his job.
“I work for the traveling public. We try to take something tragic and learn from it. We’re always pushing, pushing, pushing to make things safer.”
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