The state of Florida yesterday brought 110 counts of third-degree murder against the Miami repair facility that improperly loaded hazardous oxygen generators aboard ValuJet Flight 592, which crashed into the Everglades in 1996 with 110 people aboard.
Hours later, a federal grand jury also indicted the company, SabreTech Inc., two of its mechanics and a maintenance director on charges of conspiring to cover up the problems that led to the accident, such as signing work cards falsely indicating that certain safety procedures had been completed. The grand jury also charged SabreTech with failing to properly train the personnel who handled the hazardous materials.
The indictments were apparently the first time in U.S. history that criminal charges have been brought in an accidental airline crash, although such charges are common in some foreign countries. Murder indictments against a company are also rare in the United States.
"This crash was completely preventable," said Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Miami-Dade County, who unveiled the state indictment charging that the actions of the company and its employees led directly to the deaths of everyone on the jet. "It was a crime."
Along with the third-degree murder counts, the state indictment included 110 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawful transportation of hazardous waste.
Kenneth Quinn, an attorney for SabreTech who was once general counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration, said prosecutors were going down a dangerous path in applying criminal standards to an accident, which he said was caused by "a series of well-intentioned actions later found to be mistakes."
"Justice is not served by today's decision to attempt to criminalize human error," he said.
The state murder and manslaughter counts against SabreTech do not require proof of premeditation or intent. Federal sources said in general companies convicted on such charges pay fines and are enjoined from certain businesses.
Prosecutors said federal warrants have been issued for three SabreTech employees and they are expected to surrender shortly. Many of the charges in the 24-count federal indictment carry prison terms of up to five years and fines as high as $250,000.
Flight 592 was hit with a roaring fire shortly after takeoff from Miami for Atlanta on May 11, 1996. It crashed into the Everglades just 10 minutes after takeoff.
The National Transportation Safety Board, reviewing records at SabreTech, found that someone at the company had loaded more than 100 armed oxygen generators into the cargo hold. They had been improperly labeled "empty" and did not have protective caps that could prevent accidental discharge and the resulting 500-degree chemical reaction.
The federal grand jury alleged that Daniel Gonzalez, the maintenance director, pressured employees to skip prescribed work steps and then falsely sign documents indicating work had been completed, a practice known in the aviation industry as "pencil whipping." The grand jury said the mechanics, Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela, signed work cards that falsely indicated the shipping caps had been installed.
ValuJet did not have authority to transport such hazardous material. The FAA has since tightened rules for transporting all hazardous material and bans the shipment of any oxygen generators.
Oxygen generators are soft-drink-size cans loaded with chemicals that, when burned, produce oxygen. In many aircraft, they deploy automatically as a source of passenger oxygen when the aircraft cabin pressure drops.
The safety board said it was likely the boxes holding the canisters were upset during taxi or takeoff, and a fire began when at least one of them ignited and set off the others.
ValuJet has since merged with another small airline, AirTran, and assumed its name.
The safety board said a probable cause of the crash was SabreTech's failure to "prepare, package, identify and properly track" the hazardous canisters. The board also cited ValuJet and the FAA for lax oversight.
SabreTech shut down its Miami facility, and in early 1997 it voluntarily surrendered its Orlando facility license to the FAA rather than have the FAA close that facility. The facilities have since been sold.
Quinn asked why the FAA and ValuJet had not also been indicted.
"Rest assured, we are not going to take the fall for the federal government, which itself shares a major portion of the blame for this tragedy," Quinn said. "We will mount a vigorous defense to these charges."