WASHINGTON -- A top federal official says tests showing cocaine in the body of a pilot who crashed a commuter airliner killing nine people is a 'tragic reminder' that not even commercial aviation escapes from drugs.
The National Transportation Safety Board reported Friday that the pilot of the airliner that crashed in Colorado Jan. 19 had cocaine in his body in what may be the first such drug-related case in U.S. airline history.
'This is a tragic reminder that not even commercial aviation is exempt from the drug abuse problem which plagues our society, and furthers my commitment toward moving ahead on a comprehensive drug testing regulation for the aviation industry,' Transportation Secretary Jim Burnley said.
The two-engine turbo prop, owned by Trans Colorado Airlines and operating as Continental Express Flight 2286, crashed a few miles from Durango, Colo., as it neared the airport. The pilot and co-pilot were among the nine dead. Eight people survived the accident.
The NTSB released a toxicological report saying that tests of the pilot, Steven Silver, showed his blood and urine contained the principal metabolites of cocaine.
Any amount of drugs taken by a pilot would be a violation of federal aviation regulations.
A veteran Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said he was unaware of any previous drug-related accident in U.S. commercial aviation. Other aviation sources said they could not recall the last time a commercial airline pilot had tested positive for drugs.
There were some rare instances of alcohol-related commercial aviation accidents in the 1970s, but none of illegal drugs and never among any of the major carriers.
The safety board declined comment on whether the level of cocaine found in the pilot's body could have impaired his judgment.
The board, which is investigating the accident, has not ruled on the cause of the disaster.
'If questions about the accuracy of the tests, the role that drugs may have played, and certain other critical points are resolved -- and we are a very long way from that point -- this would be the first instance where drug use by a pilot was shown to be the cause of an accident of a U.S. scheduled airline,' said Air Line Pilots Association President Henry Duffy.
'That would be very bad news for everyone concerned with aviation safety,' Duffy said.
The tests showed the pilot's blood and urine contained detectable levels of benzoylecogonine, a substance the body produces as it breaks down cocaine. His urine also contained detectable levels of cocaine itself.
Bill White, attorney for Trans Colorado Airlines, said the drug test result 'comes as a surprise to us. ... This is not something we expected to see. Truly the company is very surprised, distressed.'
Arnold Washton, executive director of the Washton Institute, a drug addiction treatment center in New York, said because the breakdown products of cocaine linger in the body sometimes for four to five days, it is difficult to know when the pilot had taken drugs or whether he was intoxicated at the time of the crash.
But Washton said the levels showed 'there had to have been a significant amount of drug use,' and said the presence of cocaine itself in the urine makes it 'entirely possible this man was high when the crash took place.'