An airliner carrying 109 people crashed “like a bullet into the ground” Saturday in the Florida Everglades after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit and attempted to return to Miami International Airport.
There was no sign of survivors. Rescue efforts in the waist-high swamp were hampered by aviation fuel covering the crash site and concerns about alligators and snakes.
There were few recognizable parts of the DC-9 operated by ValuJet Airlines Inc., a young airline that has had several recent runway accidents and is being inspected by the FAA. Rescue crews found pieces of the plane measuring up to 6 feet.
The plane went down about 20 miles northwest of the airport after being in the air for about eight minutes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
In the last two years, the plane had maintenance problems ranging from an oil leak to problems with a hydraulic pump and a cabin depressurization that forced it to divert to Memphis, Tenn., according to FAA records.
Some rescuers had reported seeing bodies. But a rescuer who returned from the site later said he had seen none. Workers called off their search late Saturday night and planned to resume at daybreak today.
“I felt the most emotional when I saw a family album floating on the water and it was a mother and child,” said Fire-Rescue Lt. Chris Aguirre, one of the first at the scene. He said he also saw baby clothes and a floating seat from the DC-9.
Aerial video shots showed what appeared to be debris spread over a region of the Everglades, an area of desolate, swampy grasslands stretching across much of southern Florida.
Private pilot Daniel Muelhaupt was flying nearby when he saw the plane go down.
“The way it went into the ground, the way it crashed, it shot like a bullet into the ground,” he told CNN. “When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up. The wreckage was like if you take your garbage and just throw it on the ground, it looked like that.”
Flight 592, en route to Atlanta, was carrying 104 passengers and a crew of five, airline president Lewis Jordan said at a news conference at ValuJet’s Atlanta headquarters. The crew indicated at 2:15 p.m. that the plane would return to the airport, and the plane went off radar at 2:25 p.m.
The plane was at about 10,500 feet and about 100 miles west of Miami when the problems developed. The weather was sunny with a few clouds.
According to the FAA records, various maintenance problems plaguing the plane forced it to return to airports seven times in the past two years. On most occasions the problems were resolved by routine maintenance.
Among the passengers on Flight 592 were San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver and his wife, Karen, of Woodstock, Ga.
“They don’t come any better than Rodney,” said Bobby Beathard, the NFL team’s general manager.
Passengers F. Conway Hamilton and his wife, Laurie Hamilton, of Coral Gables were heading to their granddaughter’s college graduation.
“It’s the worst thing in the world you think of and the last thing you expect,” the granddaughter, Laura Sawyer, told The Miami Herald. “They were real excited about coming up. I was their first grandchild to graduate from college.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Family info ValuJet’s number for family information is 1-800-486-4346.