Deadly in '97: a wake-up call ignored



The giant DC-8 crashed after takeoff from Miami International Airport in the dead of summer, screeched across a bustling avenue amid lunchtime traffic and took five lives amid its fireball.

The crash of Fine Air Services Flight 101 on Aug. 7, 1997, opened eyes about the Federal Aviation Administration's flimsy oversight of air cargo operations. Nine years later, families await true reform.

"I wasn't asking for 'sorry.' I wanted something to change in that industry," said Audrey Ulozas, the mother of 26-year-old Fine Air first officer Steve Petrosky, who died in the crash. ''Air cargo -- it doesn't involve a lot of people in the crash. Therefore, the FAA is not that concerned about it."

After Fine Air, the FAA was put on notice, in stark terms, that it wasn't doing its job, as the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation went beyond the causes of this single crash to point to larger problems failing the industry.

Yet a Miami Herald review found that many of Fine Air's lessons remain unresolved. Air cargo's crash rate remains strikingly high, and maintenance failings fester in the industry.

The plane, bound for the Dominican Republic loaded with blue-jean fabric, crashed due to improperly loaded cargo. Also killed: captain Dale "Pat'' Thompson, 42; flight engineer Glen Millington, 35; security guard Enrique Soto 32; and Renato Alvarez, 34, a motorist on the ground.

Afterward, Fine Air supervisors quickly ordered subordinates to destroy key company documents about its operations, court records show. The company's affiliated cargo handler, Aeromar Airlines, destroyed parts of a surveillance tape of Flight 101's cargo loading operation.

Fine Air pleaded guilty in federal court to two felony charges of making false statements and obstruction of justice, and its cargo loader pleaded guilty to three more, including understating the cargo load on Flight 101 by more than 6,000 pounds. Together the two were ordered to pay $5 million in criminal fines.

In assessing blame for the crash, the NTSB chided both Fine Air and Aeromar.

But in an unusually harsh rebuke, the safety board also concluded that the FAA "was not aggressive in its inspection and management of the Fine Air certificate and this contributed to the accident."

The FAA did not adequately monitor Fine Air, and it failed to correct "known cargo-related deficiencies," the NTSB found. Records show Aeromar had been improperly loading Fine Air planes even before the crash, but the FAA did not stop it.

One inspector had not conducted en route inspections of Fine Air in 1996 or 1997 ''because of other work priorities,'' a lengthy NTSB report said, and none of the inspectors assigned to the company had training in the DC-8.

"FAA inspectors assigned to Fine Air . stated that before the Fine Air accident, there was 'no guidance' or 'minimal guidance' in FAA written directives for the surveillance of cargo operations."

''To us, cargo is cargo,'' another FAA official said.

Ultimately, the NTSB concluded: "The deficiencies . are indicative of a broader failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to adequately monitor air carriers, especially supplemental cargo carriers, in which operational problems had been identified."

Last June, the FAA issued a report to air cargo operators suggesting better safeguards on the handling of cargo -- a belated offshoot of the crash. ''I think the proof is right there," said David E. Cann, manager of the FAA's Flight Standards Aircraft Maintenance Division, pointing to the report.

Yet the document is meant for the largest cargo planes, those that operate under FAA regulations that also govern passenger jets. It is not written for the myriad smaller operators whose accidents account for nine of every 10 fatal crashes, The Miami Herald found.

"They think that air cargo is unimportant," Deirdre ''Penny'' Thompson, the captain's mother, said by phone from England. "But in all of my letters I said if the safety is not addressed, one day one of these planes is going to come down on a lot of people's heads."

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |