Criminal charges expected in 1996 ValuJet crash
July 1, 1999
From Correspondent Susan Candiotti
MIAMI (CNN) -- Criminal charges are expected to be filed within the next few weeks in connection with the May 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592, which killed 110 people, sources tell CNN.
Felony charges are likely to include fraud, falsification of documents -- including cargo manifests -- and mishandling of hazardous materials. However, sources say it is unlikely that any officials from the airline, which has since merged with another carrier, AirTran, will be charged.
While ValuJet owned and operated the doomed plane, it contracted maintenance work to another company, SabreTech. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration fined SabreTech $2.25 million for improperly handling oxygen canisters blamed for a fire that caused the crash.
SabreTech attorney Kenneth Quinn tells CNN his client is cooperating with investigators.
"We can understand why victims' families might seek criminal punishment in any aviation disaster," Quinn said. "But we don't believe any evidence exists of willful and criminal behavior. We intend to defend ourselves against any criminal charges vigorously."
Quinn said any criminal charges could have a "chilling effect" on the industry. He said it could affect the potential cooperation of parties to an air crash. "The focus (of investigations) is not to mete out criminal charges," Quinn said. "It's to find out what went wrong and fix it."
Quinn acknowledged that SabreTech, of all the parties involved, is the one most likely to face actual charges.
He said the National Transportation Safety Board found three culprits in its investigation: "Valujet, the FAA and SabreTech." He wondered why the federal government should not be held responsible for having failed to mandate fire suppression systems.
On May 11, 1996, the ValuJet DC-9, en route from Miami to Atlanta, slammed into the Everglades, killing everyone on board. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that an on-board fire caused by the oxygen canisters brought down the plane.
Investigators concluded SabreTech employees packed and delivered 144 oxygen generator canisters to a ValuJet ramp agent who loaded them on the plane. They said the devices were improperly packed and mislabled.
Many of the canisters were missing safety caps, and the jet's cargo manifest listed them as being empty when they were actually full, investigators said.
In addition, the NTSB report, issued in August 1997, cited "the failure of ValuJet to properly oversee its contract maintenance program to insure compliance of maintenance, maintenance training and hazardous material requirements and practices."
In the wake of the crash, ValuJet and SabreTech blamed each other for the missteps that led to the canisters being put on the plane.
Since the crash, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general and both federal and Florida prosecutors have been conducting an investigation.
Sources familiar with the investigation describe it as "lengthy and complex." They say it is plagued by numerous difficulties including trouble locating witnesses and documents and the massive destruction at the crash scene.
CNN SPECIAL SECTION:
Memorial dedicated to victims of ValuJet crash
FAA - Federal Aviation Administration
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