SabreTech lawyer says criminal charges 'inappropriate'
July 14, 1999
MIAMI (CNN) -- A lawyer for SabreTech called criminal charges "inappropriate" Wednesday, while the husband of one of those killed in the jetliner crash blamed on the aircraft maintenance company said prosecutors didn't go far enough.
Florida prosecutors charged the now-defunct SabreTech with third-degree murder and manslaughter Tuesday. In addition, a 24-count federal indictment charged the company, a vice president and two mechanics with a battery of offenses ranging from making false statements to investigators to placing a destructive device on a civil aircraft.
The unprecedented indictments accuse SabreTech workers of improperly loading hazardous oxygen generators on board a ValuJet DC-9, which crashed in the Everglades in May 1996 after the canisters ignited in flight. All 110 aboard were killed.
"This is really criminalizing well-intentioned, honest mistakes, and singling out -- I think unfairly -- the one company that up front admitted its mistakes early on," said Kenneth Quinn, the company's attorney. ( 150 K/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Quinn said the ValuJet crash was the result of "a long, thin, tragic line of mistakes -- mistakes, but not criminal actions.
"We believe a jury will agree with us, and find this is no time to criminalize aviation accidents," he said.
Despite Tuesday's historic indictment -- the first time a company has been charged with homicide in connection with a passenger air disaster -- some relatives of those who died wanted prosecutors to cast a wider net.
"Many of the families today are disappointed because the indictments weren't broad enough, according to some of the families. But we all recognize this is the land of law, not lynch mobs," said Richard Kessler Jr., whose wife Kathleen was killed. ( 243 K/22 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
But Kessler noted that families have not been able to see what prosecutors had collected against either SabreTech or ValuJet.
"We don't know what the evidence is. That's in the hands of the prosecutors," he said. "If they have a case, they should take it to the jury and let the jury decide on this."
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. The FAA was criticized for failing to properly oversee the airline's maintenance program.
Quinn said prosecutors were singling out SabreTech for blame, whereas investigators spread responsibility among the company, the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"I'm not trying to suggest that ValuJet or FAA should be indicted like we have been, I'm just saying why us, why now, why not ValuJet and the FAA?"
Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said that after the three-year investigation, prosecutors did not believe criminal charges could be brought against the airline. But she said the charges against SabreTech should send a warning to other companies.
"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," she said Tuesday.
SabreTech could be fined up to $6 million if convicted. The three employees charged -- Vice President of Maintenance Daniel Gonzalez and mechanics Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela -- face up to $2.7 million in fines and up to 55 years in prison. They are accused of improperly handling the canisters and falsifying paperwork.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on a fire that began when the oxygen generators ignited in the jet's cargo hold.
Investigators concluded employees from SabreTech -- which ValuJet hired to maintain its fleet -- packed and delivered 100 of the canisters to a ValuJet ramp agent, who loaded them on the plane.
The generators use a chemical reaction to produce oxygen in case of an emergency on board aircraft, and the reaction produces temperatures of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius). Investigators said the devices were wrongly packed and mislabeled.
SabreTech workers failed to put safety caps on the generators, which would have prevented them from going off, acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said Tuesday.
"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."
Three years after the crash, SabreTech is out of business, and ValuJet exists only through its merger with fellow discount carrier AirTran. SabreTech is still fighting a record $2.25 million fine in the case -- a penalty recommended by federal regulators.
Quinn, while defending the company against the latest charges, expressed sympathy for families like Kessler's as well.
"They're going to face having to relive this nightmare through a criminal case. It's just another sad chapter for them," he said.
Kessler said the crash and its aftermath have led to reforms, but that more changes are needed.
"That has to come from Congress," he said. "But Congress is political, and the airlines have money, and money drives this show."
Meanwhile, he said, the families of Flight 592 are still trying to get on with their lives.
"You never get over this. It doesn't work that way," Kessler said. "It's like an athletic injury. You carry it with you the rest of your life."
CNN's Mark Potter contributed to this report, which was written by Matt Smith.
SabreTech charged with murder in ValuJet crash
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