109 feared dead in ValuJet crash
Marshy terrain hampers search efforts
May 11, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Search teams braved thick sawgrass, crocodiles and snakes in the Florida Everglades Saturday but found no signs of survivors from the crash of ValuJet Flight 592. The DC-9, carrying 109 people from Miami to Atlanta, plunged into the Everglades shortly after takeoff Saturday afternoon. (Partial list of passengers and crew)
The flight was about 100 miles west of Miami International Airport when the pilot reported that there was smoke in the cockpit. The aircraft was believed to have been turning around to return to the airport when radar contact was lost. The FAA said that the flight was in the air for eight minutes.
Pilot eyewitness describes crash
(1.7M QuickTime movie)
Rescue teams found debris at a scorched patch in the Everglades about 12 miles northwest of the airport and reached the site by airboat in order to offer triage to survivors, should any be found. Local television stations reported that civilians were donating their airboats to speed up the rescue effort.
Although no survivors were found by dusk, neither were any casualties. Chief R.D. Paulison of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue said that by 7:15 p.m. EDT, no human remains had been found.
The FAA said there were 104 passengers and five crew members on board. ValuJet President and CEO Lewis Jordan said the plane, originally owned by Delta, had been flying since 1969. The plane was current on its inspection schedule.
A private pilot flying in the Everglades area witnessed the crash. "Nothing could have survived that," Daniel Muelhaupt told CNN. "It was like a 75 degree bank angle going down."
He said he thought the plane was going through maneuvers until he realized that it was a jet. "When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up," he said. "The wreckage looked like if you take your garbage and throw it on the ground."
National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Julie Beal said a team of a dozen NTSB officials was going to Miami Saturday evening to begin investigating the crash. NTSB has sole responsibility to determine the cause of the accident.
Former NTSB member Vernon Grose said the search would probably continue to be difficult because the water was four to five feet deep in the area where the plane crashed. He also said that larger pieces of the aircraft could be buried in the muck.
Aerial pictures showed what appeared to be debris strewn over a marshy region of the Everglades, but there were no signs of a fuselage or larger aircraft pieces.
Rescuers continued to comb the black swamp water after dark using generator-powered searchlights. Rescue workers also turned to a heat-detecting infrared device to seek out survivors, but the pitch darkness forced rescuers to scale back their efforts.
Crash follows a string of minor problems
ValuJet, based in Atlanta, began operations in October 1993. The airline has experienced various problems in the past, but no fatalities.
In January 1996, a ValuJet DC-9 got stuck in mud at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, and the passengers had to be bused back to a terminal. In the same month, another ValuJet DC-9 slid into a snowbank after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Its skid closed the airport for nearly three hours.
And in June 1995, a fire destroyed a ValuJet DC-9 on a runway at Atlanta. One flight attendant was burned and minor injuries were reported among the 57 passengers and five crew members who were evacuated.
The ValuJet fire prompted an investigation of aircraft engines that ValuJet purchased from a Turkish airline. However, Flight 592 was equipped with Pratt & Whitney engines that did not come from Turkey.
Although Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said in April that ValuJet was a safe airline, Christy Williams of the FAA said Saturday that a "special emphasis inspection" of ValuJet was ongoing. Under this type of inspection, a specific air carrier is singled out because of concerns over its operating procedure and the FAA assigns extra inspectors to monitor it.
"The irony is that that doesn't create an unsafe situation. It actually creates a safe situation because they're looking at the aircraft and the maintenance records a little more carefully," said former FAA chief Michael Goldfarb. If the inspectors had any doubts about the flight's safety, he said, it would have been grounded.
Family members of passengers on the flight may call ValuJet at 1-800-486-4346 for information.
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