SAN FRANCISCO -- Long before she was the calm public face of the investigation into the crash of an Asiana Airlines plane, Deborah Hersman established herself as an unflappable, authoritative figure in times of trauma.
She was that way even as a 19-year-old volunteer intern.
"Debbie is one of the most quietly confident people I've ever met," said Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia, who hired Hersman as in intern and later made her his senior legislative aid.
Now the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Hersman is generating attention this week for her press briefings explaining the federal investigation into doomed Flight 214.
During her Monday session, she laid out the NTSB's detailed plan for figuring out why the jetliner slammed into the runway at San Francisco International Airport.
Don't let her serene presence fool you, say those who have worked with Hersman -- or against her. They say the 43-year-old daughter of a retired Air Force general is a commanding presence with a long history of taking charge at the scene of an accident.
In a phone interview Monday, Wise recalled how Hersman tackled a series of coal-train derailments near Point Pleasant, W.Va., when she worked on his staff and he was congressman representing that district.
Because one of the derailments took place in front of an elementary school, local citizens were outraged that the railroads were putting the community's children at risk. Hersman negotiated a peace settlement of sorts, bringing railroad officials together with citizens in a series of post-accident meetings. The result was a 30-mile safety stretch, with railway officials agreeing to replace sections of the tracks and reduce speeds in that area.
"She's in charge, but not in an overt, 'I'm-the-boss' kind of way," Wise said. "She's fearless and very firm when it comes time to say: 'This needs to be done.' "
Hersman is the daughter of retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Walt C. Hersman, who served two tours in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. Her family moved around a lot when she was growing up -- stops included Amman, Jordan, and Madrid -- before settling down in Virginia when she was 17.
She attended Chantilly (Va.) High School before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Tech and a Master of Science degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in 1999. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Niel Plummer, now a software engineer for Lockheed Martin. They have three sons.
President George W. Bush promoted her to the NTSB board in 2004. She was sworn in as the board's chairwoman in 2009, becoming the youngest person (39) ever to fill that post.
She has since been involved in the investigation of at least 17 major accidents, including the 2009 collision of two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority trains in Washington, D.C., that left nine people dead.
The Washington Post once wrote that Hersman "came out swinging, letting everyone know that she was in charge. She blasted Metro, decrying that the rail agency had ignored a five-year-old NTSB call to retrofit or phase out its oldest, least crash-worthy railcars."
Richard Sarles, now the general manager of the Metro board of directors, recalled Monday how Hersman's interest in the case went beyond determining probable causes and issuing recommendations to prevent further accidents. Sarles said she was "very interested in the victims and their families."
Later, when Metro saluted a handful of employees for their contributions in the field of safety, Hersman came to the banquet and delivered an address. "She has a genuine interest in the building of a safety culture," Sarles said.