Test shows oxygen canisters sparking intense fire
Day 2 of NTSB hearings on ValuJet crashNovember 19, 1996
Web posted at: 9:30 p.m. EST
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MIAMI (CNN) -- The families of the victims of ValuJet Flight 592 sat in stunned silence at federal hearings Tuesday as an expert showed a videotape of oxygen-generating canisters bursting into flames. (47 sec. /1.7M QuickTime movie)
The video showed two tests in which activated oxygen generators ignited the packing around them in a simulation of what may have happened on the DC-9 that crashed May 11 into the Florida Everglades shortly after takeoff, killing all 110 people on board.
While no official cause of the crash has been identified, the canisters are suspected of starting a fire in the plane's cargo hold. The canisters, mislabeled as empty, actually contained oxygen-making chemicals.
Valujet chairman Lewis Jordan testified for more than 90 minutes, answering concerns of the Federal Aviation Administration that ValuJet pilots' paychecks depended on completion of flights. The practice raised fears that pilots might make decisions that would compromise safety.
"Absolutely not," Jordan said. "I think that is an insult to the industry and to the individual (pilot)."
As the video was shown on the second day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the disaster, Merritt Birky, an NTSB expert, described the experiments.
Investigators activated 120 oxygen canisters by pulling just one retaining pin in each box, allowing the canisters to self-ignite.
Each time, flames flared up and a rushing sound could be heard as oxygen escaped from the canisters. The flames reached a temperature of 3,000 degrees in the test chamber, Birky said.
The first test involved canisters wrapped in plastic bubble wrap and packed in cardboard boxes. The canisters took 5 minutes to 7 minutes to ignite the packing, Birky said.
In the second test, baggage and airline tires were packed alongside cardboard boxes filled with canisters. Flames burned white hot nearest the boxes while the luggage and tires, quickly enveloped in yellow flames, gave off thick black smoke. The test ended with a tire exploding in a shower of sparks and flame.
As the video ended, most family members sat silently, their faces immobile. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
SabreTech, the company that performed maintenance on ValuJet planes in Miami, distributed a letter during a break Tuesday, stating the company's objections to the NTSB tests and to the showing of the videotape.
The tests were "not representative of the conditions that may have existed on ValuJet Flight 592 on May 11, 1996," the company said.
When the hearing resumed, NTSB member John Goglia chastised SabreTech, saying the release of the letter, written to the NTSB's chief negotiator Greg Feith, was inappropriate.
Earlier, the lead ramp agent for ValuJet Flight 592 testified he had no misgivings about shipping oxygen canisters on the plane, because the shipping labels indicated the containers were empty. (10 sec. /128K AIFF or WAV sound)
Although shipping such potentially flammable material was not allowed on ValuJet planes, Christopher Ramkissoon said his curiosity wasn't aroused because the label said the canisters were empty and they were not marked as hazardous material.
The canisters can generate heat up to 500 degrees when they are triggered to provide oxygen to passenger emergency masks. The containers on Flight 592 were being shipped to ValuJet's Atlanta headquarters and were not for use on the plane.
Ramkissoon said he showed the shipping ticket to the flight crew before the plane took off and that no questions were asked. Five boxes containing 144 metal canisters were packed in white cardboard boxes, Ramkissoon said.
Dennis Segarra, another ValuJet ramp agent, testified that when he placed the boxes on top of the tires in the cargo hold, he heard a metallic-sounding clinking noise. He said he wedged the boxes so they wouldn't move.
Jostling during flight could have activated the canisters, according to experts.
Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.
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