In the stillness of Everglades National Park, they came to remember.
Twenty years ago to the day, the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 robbed families of parents, children, and spouses. On Wednesday, about 30 relatives of those who perished traveled to the Everglades crash site, and a nearby memorial, to pay their respects.
“It just brings back good memories, of my mother,” said Dana Simonton, 52, of Macon, Georgia. “At least it gives me some peace and some closure, to actually be able to go to the actual crash site.”
All 110 passengers and crew on board the doomed flight died — the DC-9 aircraft swallowed up by the Everglades muck after a fire broke out shortly after takeoff from Miami International Airport. Simonton’s mother, Joyce, died on her 67th birthday.
In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary, relatives shared stories of their loved ones on a group Facebook page. One woman mourned the death of her childhood friend, who was only seven years old when she boarded Flight 592. Another lamented the death of a flight attendant who wasn’t supposed to work that day, but at the “last minute” subbed in for a co-worker.
“Hard to believe it's been 20 years!” one commenter wrote. “It still breaks my heart and leaves a knot in my stomach as if it just happened.”
Family members who made the trek to Miami visited the crash site on airboats, and then gathered at the concrete memorial just off of Tamiami Trail, about 12 miles west of Krome Avenue. There, the names of all 110 passengers and crew are engraved in stone, and surrounded by 110 pointed columns that rise as high as nine feet, and point toward the crash site eight miles away.
Relatives have gathered for similar remembrance services at the 10 and 15-year marks. Gail Dunham, the executive director National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation — a group for air crash survivors and family members — served as an organizer for the events.
Dunham said it’s unclear if the families will return again five years from now.
“So many have moved away,” she said. “Some have passed away. It’s harder for them, we have two people in wheelchairs today.”
For families, Duhham said, the grief “doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get better. It just gets different.”
In the wake of the Flight 592 crash — which was caused by improperly stored oxygen generators that caught fire — the Federal Aviation Administration adopted tougher standards that required smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in a plane’s cargo hold.
Dunham said safety advocates had tried for a decade to get the FAA to take that action, but it resisted until the ValuJet tragedy.
Shortly after the 1996 crash, Simonton paid his first visit to the site where his mother and 109 others died. Simonton said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created levies in the marshy waters for the memorial event, so that buses could transport the grieving families in.
The families had been told to dress for hot weather, Simonton said, but once they got there, a strange thing happened.
“It just cooled off, a nice breeze came, and it wasn’t hot at all,” he said. There was a sense of peace, he said, and it was very calm.