Miami-Dade County

The day a plane with 110 people disappeared into the Everglades

It vanished with barely a trace.

ValuJet Flight 592, with 110 people on board, plunged into the Everglades after taking off from Miami International Airport , May 11, 1996.

READ MORE: See Miami Herald website coverage from May 12, 1996

The DC-9 had traveled less than 100 miles west of the airport when the crew reported smoke in the cockpit. The pilot turned around and tried to make it back.

The jet didn’t make it.

READ MORE: Families seek closure 20 years later

ValuJet Flight 592, bound for Atlanta, slammed nose-first into the muck and disappeared under the earth.

Investigators later determined that 144 oxygen-generating canisters were improperly secured, labeled and packaged in the cargo hold of the plane. There was no smoke detection or suppression system in the cargo hold. The canisters, which could generate 500-degree heat when triggered, didn’t have safety caps.

READ MORE: Mechanic on run from ValuJet trial still on the run

A year after the disaster, the ValuJet name was gone from the skies, merging with another airline. By 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration bolstered its hazardous-materials inspection program.

On the 20th anniversary of the crash, relatives gathered at the memorial and board on airboats to visit the tragic site.

READ MORE: That moment when news in Miami suddenly flashed before our eyes

Here is one of the Miami Herald’s breaking news stories on the tragedy, published May 12, 1996.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

By airboat and helicopter, rescuers searched the muck and shallow water of the Everglades, but they quickly stared at the grim reality: None of the 109 people on board a ValuJet DC-9 survived when their plane slammed into the earth west of Miami International Airport on Saturday.

"Oh, no. Not the day before Mother's Day, " said one frustrated Metro firefighter, pulling off his sweaty flame retardant gear.

The feeling of hopelessness struck even harder at families of the passengers:

"There doesn't seem to be any hope, " said Stewart P. Thomas of Coral Gables, whose daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were on the plane. "The screens on TV have gotten pretty close. I can't see any metal larger than a dishpan."

Firefighters, paramedics and police officers — who have trained for just such a tragedy — could do little Saturday afternoon but slosh through the mud. At times, it seemed only the dragon flies and mosquitoes easily visited the wreckage.

Bodies were sighted, but fuel that could have been easily ignited and the natural terrain hampered rescue efforts to the point where even airboats were eventually prohibited from skimming the river of grass to help.

"It is just all swamp and sawgrass. It will probably take three or four days to clean up. It will all have to be all done by airboat, " said J.C. Esslinger, a state wildlife officer. "It is going to be ugly out there. It's not going to be pleasant, that is for sure."

ValuJet Flight 592 took off from Miami International at 2:05 p.m. — one hour late — with 104 passengers and a crew of five, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Christy Williams.

It was scheduled to land one hour and 55 minutes later in Atlanta. Instead, after about 20 minutes, it bored into the ground like a power drill.

"What we have is a high-impact crash, " said a somber Luis Fernandez, spokesman for the Metro-Dade Fire Department.

The FAA's Williams gave this account of Flight 592's last minutes:

The DC-9 took off and had traveled less than 100 miles west of Miami, when the crew radioed Miami traffic controllers to report smoke billowing into the cockpit. The plane had been airborne eight minutes.

Headed back to airport

The jet, then at an altitude of 10,500 feet, turned around and tried to make it back to Miami International.

At about 2:25 p.m., Miami air traffic control lost Flight 592 from its radar screens. The jet went down, apparently nose first, about 14 miles northwest of Miami International.

It disintegrated on impact in a desolate area of wet earth, grass patches and trees.

A private pilot from Miami Beach who was flying west at the time told Cable News Network he saw the plane go down. Daniel Muelhaupt said he was about two miles from the plane, flying toward Naples, when he saw what he at first thought was a small plane doing maneuvers. The craft was pointing down at an angle of about 75 degrees.

"When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up, " Muelhaupt said. "The wreckage was like if you take your garbage and just throw it on the ground, it looked like that."

Muelhaupt said he radioed authorities and circled until they reached the scene, which took a long time because there were no visible flames or large chunks of aircraft to focus on.

"Access was a major, major problem. The plane was broken up into many pieces and submerged in 4 to 5 feet of water." said Metro-Dade's Fernandez.

Shredded metal and bodies

Helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, Metro Police and the Dade fire department finally located the crash site and reported no signs of survivors, just minuscule pieces of shredded metal, baggage, bodies and a taut crater shaped like a candle flame. The crash sight is very close to where an Eastern Airlines L1011 crashed in 1972, the worst local air disaster before Saturday.

While rescuers searched in vain, distraught relatives of passengers rushed to the ValuJet counter at Miami International. Company officials quickly moved them to an auditorium, where counselors were available to help them deal with their loss.

Saturday afternoon, ValuJet's president spoke from Atlanta.

"It's impossible to put into words how devastating something like this is, " said Lewis Jordan, president and chief operating officer.

Atlanta-based ValuJet, which began operations in October 1993 and serves 26 cities in 17 states, has had a checkered past.

The airline has been one of the most successful startups in aviation history, but its rapid growth has been tainted by several accidents and questions about the reliability of its aged fleet.

The FAA has ValuJet under a special emphasis inspection because of repeated safety problems.

Special notice

Last summer, the FAA issued a special inspection notice for aircraft engines that ValuJet purchased from a Turkish airline.

That investigation stemmed from a June 8, 1995, fire that destroyed a ValuJet DC-9 on a runway at Atlanta. One flight attendant was burned and minor injuries were reported as the 57 passengers and five crew were evacuated.

In January, a ValuJet DC-9 got stuck in the mud at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. The 101 passengers were bused to a terminal.

Also in January, another ValuJet DC-9 with 30 people aboard slid into a snowbank after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, closing the airport for nearly three hours. No one was hurt.

A ValuJet DC-9 also skidded off an icy runway at Dulles in January 1994, closing the airport for almost two hours.

Flight 592 was a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 configured with 113 passenger seats. It is powered by Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9A engines.

At the crash site, Metro fire and the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commision officers gathered about a half mile from the crash on the levy of the L-67 Canal. Helicopters landed on the ridge dropping off firefighters.

Possible

About 5:30 p.m., police and rescue were waiting for hazardous material specialists to check out the area before going in. There was concern about possible fuel leakage and explosion.

"We have to wait until Haz Mat cleans it up, " said E.M. Davis, a fresh water and game commission officer.

But as night came on, the search was called off. Rescue officials said the fuel atop the water posed too much of a risk for the airboats.

"Night is falling, we're going to secure things here and make sure no one molests the area. We won't be going out there tonight, " said Metro-Dade Police Capt. Rita Oramas.

MORE FROM THE ARCHIVES

ANATOMY OF A TRAGEDY (From May 2006)

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.

'ACCOUNTABILITY'

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.

TRANSFORMATION

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández 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."

MORE FROM THE ARCHIVES

THE MEMORIAL (from May 2006)

BY CHARLES RABIN

crabin@miamiherald.com

They can never be forgotten.

Family members won't allow it. Neither will investigators who toiled for months, looking for answers in the heat and muck of the Everglades, dodging jagged coral rock and lurking alligators.

So, on Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, relatives of the 110 deceased and those who investigated one of the nation's worst air disasters gathered in South Florida to remember.

And to cry.

First came a morning news conference at the Dadeland Marriott, where even hardened federal investigators admitted that the crash left a permanent scar.

"I tell people these tears provide moisture to the concrete in my back, " said former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia. "And with these tears, you become a rock."

Listen to Mary Schiavo, a former assistant U.S. attorney and inspector general of the Department of Transportation: "I left government because of this. You do become part of the family. This one in particular was personal."

"I took this accident more personally than I should have, " said Greg Feith, the NTSB investigator in charge of the ValuJet crash. "I'm here because I have a lot of respect for not only them, " he said of Schiavo and Goglia, taking a long pause, "but for the families."

They cried again later at a procession in Kendall at the Woodlawn Park South cemetery, where the ValuJet memorial stood out.

"This monument is dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the Florida Everglades air tragedy Flight 592 on May 11, 1996, " one upright stone read. Another listed the names of the dead. A third stone, lying flat on the ground in front of the two others, was in memory of the flight's captain, Candalyn Chamberlin-Kubeck.

Chamberlin-Kubeck turned 35 the day before the disaster.

As family members took pictures and thought quietly, youngsters not old enough to remember the incident ran around.

Life goes on.

In the middle of the quiet commotion, Carolyn Street of Baltimore held a picture of her sister, Frances Jacqueline Brown - tightly.

She likes to call her Kellie. Brown, also from Baltimore, was on vacation in Miami on Mother's Day 1996, and was having so much fun that she decided to stay another week.

Street carefully placed the photo of her sister against the monument. She said her mother died before visiting Woodlawn.

"She never could get over the fact that her youngest child died, " Street said. "But we're all at peace now."

Street mentioned her 9-year-old granddaughter. Her name: Kellie.

Life goes on.

By late afternoon, the group had grown to about 70 and was now gathered about 20 miles west of the Palmetto Expressway, just across a canal from the Tamiami Trail.

Facing them: a series of 110 obelisks descending in height and pointing north. Roses of all colors surrounded one flat gray stone on the ground, listing the 110 names.

The Rev. Warren Lather of Georgia - who lost his son, Warren Lather III, aboard Flight 592 - sat on a stool, cane in hand, and led a service.

"We know there's no closure, " he said. "We're here because we lost something that bonds us together. We're not here to make sense of it, because it doesn't make any sense."

They sang Amazing Grace.

When they were done, 11 people took turns standing over the stone and read 10 names apiece.

Then a very strong man - a man who had toiled in the muck searching for answers a long time ago - cried, too. He was Jim Loftus, assistant director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

"When you walk away from here, hold your family a little closer, " he said. "And know there are people who come here during the year to honor your sacrifice."

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