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Contractor Charged in Death of 110 on Valujet

Disaster: SabreTech Inc. is indicted for loading into the plane's cargo compartment the flammable canisters blamed in the 1996 crash. Three employees also face criminal action.

July 14, 1999|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Three years after ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board, an airline maintenance company has been charged with murder and manslaughter for loading into the plane's cargo hold the flammable oxygen canisters blamed for the crash.

In a state indictment Tuesday, SabreTech Inc. was charged with 110 counts of third-degree murder, 110 counts of manslaughter and one count of illegal transportation of hazardous waste. Three company employees were also charged with various crimes in a separate federal indictment.

It is believed to be the first time in U.S. aviation history that criminal charges have been filed against maintenance workers after an accidental plane crash. And while not unprecedented, murder indictments against a company are rare.

"This crash was completely preventable," said Miami-Dade state Atty. Katherine Fernandez Rundle at a press conference announcing the indictments. "It was not an accident like many other crashes are. It was a crime . . . it was a homicide.

"This corporation is not going to be allowed to escape unpunished when it committed acts which resulted in so many deaths."

Kenneth P. Quinn, a lawyer who represents SabreTech, said in a statement: "This was an accident, not a crime."

The DC-9 took off from Miami International Airport on May 11, 1996, and 11 minutes later spiraled into the marsh after the pilot reported that black smoke had begun to fill the cabin and cockpit.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the crash was caused by a fire that broke out in the forward cargo compartment among 144 oxygen canisters that were improperly secured, labeled and packaged. The outdated oxygen generators, some of which were half-full of highly volatile chemicals, had been removed from two other ValuJet planes and were to be returned to the airline's home base in Atlanta.

The generators, about the size of a beer can, are loaded with chemicals that, when burned, produce oxygen. In many aircraft, they deploy as a source of passenger oxygen when the cabin pressure drops. As a part of the process, they can produce temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NTSB said it was likely boxes holding the canisters were somehow upset during taxi or takeoff, and at least one ignited, setting off others.

The NTSB concluded that SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration shared responsibility for the crash. ValuJet was a start-up airline that the FAA had failed to properly regulate, the NTSB said.

But only SabreTech, which was effectively put out of business by the crash, and three employees--Daniel Gonzalez, Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela--were charged in the indictments.

"They put corporate profits ahead of public safety," said Guy A. Lewis, acting U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida.

The state murder and manslaughter charges against SabreTech do not require proof of premeditation or intent. If convicted, the company could face fines that might go to the victims' families.

The 24-count federal indictment charges SabreTech and the three employees with various crimes, including conspiracy to make false statements to the FAA. A grand jury said the employees placed "the short-term business and monetary interests of SabreTech ahead of public safety concerns."

If convicted on the federal charges, SabreTech faces possible fines and restitution of $6 million. The workers could be sentenced to up to 55 years in prison and fined $2.7 million on the conspiracy charges.

Although the NTSB investigation revealed that dozens of SabreTech employees handled the oxygen generators--from the time they were removed from two older ValuJet planes until the time they were loaded onto Flight 592--only three were held responsible for the fatal crash.

According to the grand jury, Gonzalez, then the company's director of maintenance, pressured workers to skip prescribed work steps and falsely swear that work had been completed, a practice known as "pencil whipping."

Florence and Valenzuela were SabreTech mechanics who, prosecutors say, signed work cards stating that they had put safety caps on the generators when they had not. Instead, documents showed, they cut, tied or taped over the pull strings in an attempt to keep them from igniting. The caps would have cost $9.16, according to testimony given to NTSB investigators.

Federal arrest warrants have been issued for Gonzalez, Florence and Valenzuela. All three Miami residents are expected to turn themselves over to authorities this week.

Quinn charged Tuesday that SabreTech was being scapegoated for the accident, which led to tougher requirements for transporting hazardous cargo aboard commercial airliners.

"Why us? Why now? And why not the FAA or ValuJet?" Quinn said.

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