SabreTech charged with murder in ValuJet crash
Company, three employees, also face federal conspiracy charges
July 13, 1999
MIAMI (CNN) -- Airline maintenance company SabreTech Inc. was indicted Tuesday on state criminal charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the 1996 ValuJet crash that killed 110 people in the Everglades.
"This crash was completely preventable," said Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, a Florida state attorney. "This was not an accident. This was a crime. It was a homicide."
In addition to the state charges, a 24-count federal indictment accuses SabreTech, its vice president for maintenance and two mechanics with making false statements, mishandling hazardous materials, placing a destructive device on a civil aircraft and conspiracy to make false statements to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation.
SabreTech, which was contracted by ValuJet for maintenance, was also charged with unlawful transportation of hazardous materials -- oxygen generators which federal investigators said exploded in the plane's cargo hold shortly after takeoff, igniting and spreading flames through the aircraft.
U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said the corporation faces fines totaling $6 million. The three individuals charged -- Daniel Gonzalez, the vice president of maintenance, and mechanics Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela -- face 55 years in jail and $2.7 million in fines.
"Today we made history. This is the first criminal homicide prosecution involving a passenger aircraft tragedy in the United States," Fernandez-Rundle said.
"Hopefully, this chilling reality of criminal charges -- murder and manslaughter charges -- will send a very clear message to the aviation industry that will save lives in the future," said Fernandez-Rundle. "To put it very simply, this corporation is not going to be able to escape unpunished when it committed crimes and acts that resulted in these many, many deaths."
ValuJet, now merged with AirTran, was not named in the indictment. Fernandez-Rundle said that after the three-year investigation, prosecutors did not believe criminal charges could be brought against the airline.
Investigators concluded that SabreTech employees packed and delivered 100 oxygen generator canisters to a ValuJet ramp agent who loaded them on the plane. They said the devices were improperly packed and mislabeled.
Investigators said that SabreTech employees signed work cards that said they had installed plastic safety caps on the oxygen generators, although no caps had been installed.
"Prescribed safety related work was not done," Lewis said. "Critical maintenance steps were left out and necessary repairs and inspections were overlooked or not done."
The plane was en route from Miami to Atlanta when it crashed, killing all on board. While ValuJet owned and operated the DC-9, it contracted the maintenance work to Phoenix-based SabreTech.
In 1998, the FAA fined SabreTech $2.25 million for improperly preparing the oxygen canisters for shipment on the plane. The generators trigger a chemical reaction that produces oxygen for passengers' use if a plane loses cabin pressure. The reaction produces temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius).
A National Transportation Safety Board report, issued in August 1997, cited ValuJet for failing to properly oversee its contract maintenance program and ensure that contractors complied with maintenance, training and hazardous material requirements.
ValuJet and SabreTech blamed each other for the missteps that led to the canisters being put on the plane.
SabreTech attorney Kenneth Quinn called the charges against the company, which is no longer in operation, "not justified, not necessary, and not in the best interests of aviation safety."
He said the company would fight the charges.
"Why us? Why now? Why not the FAA and ValuJet?" Quinn said. "We are not going to stand idly by and be made a criminal scapegoat for this tragedy, he added. "This was a horrific accident, not a crime."
Criminal charges expected in 1996 ValuJet crash
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