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Legacy of ValuJet crash: improved air safety


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For Lee Sawyer, who lost both her parents when ValuJet Flight 592 plummeted into the Everglades, the memories and the pain are shockingly fresh.


''It's still new,'' said Sawyer, who lives in Coral Gables, where she is recovering from a stroke she suffered in 1999. 'I look at the picture of my parents and I think, `How could it be 10 years?' It seems like it was yesterday.''


Sawyer is among about 80 family members of victims of the crash who will converge today in Miami to mark its 10th anniversary, mourn their loved ones and perhaps take some comfort in a legacy of air-safety improvements that resulted from the tragedy.


Among the changes: U.S. passenger airplanes are now required to have fire suppression and detection systems in certain cargo compartments; oxygen generators are banned as cargo on passenger aircraft; and the Federal Aviation Administration has hired more inspectors of hazardous materials and revamped its program for airline oversight.


The ValuJet disaster also led to the first U.S. criminal prosecution related to an airplane crash.


''We're a heck of a lot better today than at the time of the accident,'' said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member who presided over the inquiry into the crash. ``But there's still more work to be done.''


Specifically, he said, airlines still need to do more oversight of the companies that handle their maintenance work.


''There's an obligation on the part of the air carrier to provide an oversight that is at least equal to their own,'' said Goglia, who is now a professor of aviation science at St. Louis University and a consultant on transportation safety. ``And that is not always the case today.''




A chain of events led to the ValuJet accident, which Goglia called ''100 percent preventable.'' Procedures were not followed, and nobody caught the missteps.


Ten years ago today, the ValuJet DC-9 took off from Miami International Airport, destined for Atlanta. Just 11 minutes later, it blazed into an inferno of smoke and fire and crashed into the Everglades. All 110 people aboard died.


The NTSB's findings: The fire was ignited by 144 volatile oxygen-generating canisters removed from two ValuJet MD-80s by maintenance firm SabreTech's mechanics. The canisters, which can generate heat up to 500 degrees when they are triggered, were improperly secured, labeled and packaged by now-defunct SabreTech. They were then delivered for ValuJet to load aboard the cargo hold of the plane.


The safety board determined that ValuJet, SabreTech and the FAA shared responsibility for the crash. ValuJet had not properly supervised its maintenance contractor; SabreTech employees failed to properly prepare and package the oxygen generators; and the FAA failed to adequately regulate start-up airlines such as ValuJet and to require smoke detection and suppression systems in DC-9 cargo compartments.


SabreTech workers had signed off on FAA-approved work orders, vouching that they had placed required safety caps on the canisters to disarm them.


They had not. Neither SabreTech nor ValuJet had ordered the yellow caps, which would have prevented the firing pins from discharging. The caps would have cost a total of $9.16, including tax.


And four months before the ValuJet crash, some FAA managers had found safety defects so severe they wanted to ground the airline. But the report on their findings was suppressed by top management. The airline kept flying.


In 1997, ValuJet merged with Orlando-based AirWays Corp., parent of AirTran Airways, erasing the name ValuJet from the skies. The airline reinvented itself as AirTran Holdings Inc. The growing low-cost carrier's 112 aircraft make up one of the youngest fleets in the industry, with an average age of three years, said AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver. The airline sold all of ValuJet's former planes.


While AirTran's 7,000 employees still include some from ValuJet, none of the top managers is from the airline. Former ValuJet President Lewis Jordan has sat on the AirTran board since the merger, Graham-Weaver said.


''We have changed a lot of things, but certainly our commitment to safety remains our top priority,'' she said.




The crash also led to the first U.S. criminal prosecution related to an airplane accident, which Gail Dunham, president of the National Air Disaster Alliance, called a ''landmark'' case.


''It was a public accountability after ValuJet, for the government and the industry, because of the truth coming out,'' she said.


In July 1999, the state filed criminal charges against SabreTech: 110 counts of third-degree murder, 110 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawful transportation of hazardous waste. At the same time, the U.S. attorney's office issued a 24-count indictment against SabreTech and three former employees.


ValuJet was never criminally charged.


In December 1999 in Miami, SabreTech was found guilty of eight federal criminal counts of recklessly causing hazardous materials to be transported and one count of failing to train employees in handling of hazardous materials.


On appeal, the court upheld only the one count of failing to train employees in hazardous-materials handling, which carried a maximum $500,000 fine. At the state level, 220 charges were dismissed in exchange for a no-contest plea to the one charge of carrying hazardous waste.




Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fern?ndez Rundle said Wednesday that the charges put the aviation industry on alert that they could be held criminally responsible. They brought ``some sort of sense of justice, some good, if you can call it that, of this horrible loss and tragedy.''


By March 2001, the FAA required the retrofitting of 3,483 airplanes with fire suppression and detection systems, at a total cost of $300 million. After beefing up its hazardous-materials program, the agency now has 119 hazardous-materials inspectors, compared with 14 in 1996, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.


The FAA also has formed a national certification team of safety experts to evaluate any new carrier before allowing it to fly. New airlines operate under increased supervision by FAA safety inspectors for five years, she said.


Since the ValuJet crash there have been no accidents involving fires in the cargo holds of passenger airlines. There have been some fires, however, involving all-cargo planes, said NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm.


''It's the safest period in aviation history ever -- definitely the safety record has improved in the past 10 years,'' Duquette said. ``Some of the lessons we learned since the ValuJet accident have changed how the FAA does business.''










Wow 10 years since that nasty day.....sad day in history

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On appeal, the court upheld only the one count of failing to train employees in hazardous-materials handling, which carried a maximum $500,000 fine. At the state level, 220 charges were dismissed in exchange for a no-contest plea to the one charge of carrying hazardous waste.



500k for 110 lives




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