An article yesterday should have said that ValuJet employees packed the 144 oxygen generator canisters aboard the flight that crashed in May 1996. The story also should have said that maintenance firm SabreTech Corp., not ValuJet, still faces 110 state charges related to the crash and a fine proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration. (Published 12/08/1999)
In a federal case that marked the first time criminal charges were brought in an accidental U.S. air disaster, a jury today convicted SabreTech Inc. of mishandling hazardous materials linked to the deadly 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades.
SabreTech, a South Florida maintenance and repair facility that is no longer in business, was found guilty on nine of 24 counts in connection with the improper packaging of oxygen generators blamed for a fire in the cargo hold that led to the crash. Two SabreTech employees were acquitted on charges of conspiracy and making false statements. The company could face maximum fines of $500,000 for each count.
All 110 people aboard ValuJet Flight 592 were killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff on May 11, 1996. The 2,200-degree fire that spread to the passenger cabin was so intense that it melted the aluminum seat tracks.
Gwendolyn Marks of Miami, whose son, Philmore, died in the crash as he was en route to his brother's college graduation, said the mixed verdict was "a dagger to the heart."
"People died . . . they are not coming back," she said. "They [SabreTech] should have been guilty of all charges."
Kenneth Quinn, corporate counsel for SabreTech, said he will appeal the guilty verdicts, insisting there "was nothing reckless or willful" about the handling of the 144 generators--used parts being returned to ValuJet headquarters--that SabreTech packed aboard the flight without required safety caps and labeling. The generators supply emergency oxygen to the drop-down masks in the cabin.
During the trial, defense attorneys argued that maintenance workers and mechanics with ValuJet were not as informed about the hazards of the canisters as they are today, while the prosecution countered that SabreTech was under tremendous pressure to cut corners, complete work and make profits. SabreTech was acquitted of conspiracy.
"We were found not guilty on two-thirds of these outlandish conspiracy and terrorist charges," Quinn said. "To the families, we extend the deepest regret and deepest sympathy. Through their efforts and ours, the airline industry has been overhauled. The search for a scapegoat is just wrong--it drove SabreTech out of business."
But U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said that state and federal agencies "spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours investigating this tragedy to make sure nothing like this could happen again."
The verdict "sends a strong message that when prescribed maintenance is not done, when necessary repairs are overlooked, it's a serious crime with serious consequences," Lewis said. "The good news is, the flying public can sleep better tonight."
Defense attorneys had argued that the 27-year-old DC-9 had a history of mechanical and electrical problems, including 22 serious electrical problems in the five months before the crash, according to maintenance records introduced at the trial. They said workers might have made mistakes, but did not commit a crime.
Attorneys for former SabreTech employees Daniel Gonzalez and Eugene Florence, who were acquitted, said the two defendants were working men who wanted to put this chapter of their lives behind them. Gonzalez, a former vice president of maintenance, was accused of pressuring Florence and others to sign false work cards stating they had placed shipping caps on the generators. Florence, a former mechanic, had signed one of the false work cards.
A third former SabreTech mechanic charged in the case, Mauro Valenzuela, is a fugitive.
"This is a case about lies," Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller said during closing arguments. "The important lie was that the shipping caps had been put on the oxygen canisters. The pressure of the workload caused shortcuts to be taken. The supervisors knew about the missing safety caps and their response to the workers was, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it later.' "
Laura Sawyer, whose grandparents died in the crash, said the verdict was a victory for consumers. "It sends a message that corporations cannot put the almighty dollar before safety," she said.
ValuJet still faces 110 state counts of third-degree murder and a $2.25 million fine proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.