The 110 people aboard ValuJet flight 592 probably would not have died had the DC-9 carried smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in its cargo hold, federal safety officials concluded Tuesday.
Winding up a 15-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shouldered some of the blame for the deadly May 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades because it declined to require airlines to install the fire-fighting equipment.
The NTSB also faulted Phoenixbased SabreTech, a maintenance contractor whose employees improperly packed and labeled dangerous oxygen generators that caused a raging fire on the scheduled Miami-to-Atlanta flight, which lasted just 11 minutes.
ValuJet itself, its reputation badly scarred by the disaster, nearly escaped a major share of the blame.
NTSB staff recommended that ValuJet’s actions be considered contributing factors, a lesser category of responsibility.
The NTSB said the airline’s failure to monitor SabreTech’s work adequately was highlighted by its decision to have just three ValuJet employees, two of them contractors, at SabreTech’s facility in Miami. SabreTech workers there packed the oxygen generators without required safety caps in ordinary cardboard boxes that lacked any indication that they contained hazardous materials.
But safety board member John J. Goglia objected to letting ValuJet off the hook so easily and his four colleagues agreed.
“The owner-operator of the airplane is responsible. It doesn’t matter who accomplished the work,” Goglia said to loud applause from the families of the crash victims. “They must assure the airplane is airworthy.”
Atlanta-based ValuJet, which sent no representative to the meeting, later accused Goglia, a former airline mechanic, of undermining the work of the safety board and being “anti-ValuJet” throughout the investigation.
“The airworthiness of the aircraft at the time of dispatch has never been in question,” ValuJet said in a statement released Tuesday.
More than 70 relatives of the crash victims, many carrying or wearing photos of their kin, attended the meeting, lending a forceful and emotional presence to the clinical descriptions of the events that doomed the plane and their loved ones.
“The ValuJet accident resulted from failures all up and down the line, from regulatory officials to airline executives in corporate boardrooms to workers on the shop room floor,” NTSB Chairman James E. Hall said.
Had the FAA acted on earlier NTSB recommendations to order planes to carry the firefighting equipment, “ValuJet Flight 592 likely would not have crashed,” the safety board said.
When first presented by NTSB staff and read by Hall, that conclusion was even stronger. But board members decided they could not say for certain what would have happened and inserted the word “likely.”
The end of the investigation provided little satisfaction to Atlanta lawyer Richard Kessler, whose wife, Kathleen, was aboard Flight 592.
Kessler said the NTSB did not pay sufficient heed to electrical problems with the 27-year-old DC-9, which he said he believes caused the fire. Nor, he said, will the investigation provide sufficient impetus for the overhaul of the airline industry.
But he said he and others will continue to lobby for safer skies.
“They want us to go home, bury our dead, resolve our claims, get on with our lives and let Washington and the airlines alone. But they don’t understand that you never get over it.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Probable causes The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the probable causes of the accident were: The failure of the contractor, SabreTech, to properly prepare, package and identify a cargo of hazardous oxygen generators that have been blamed for starting the fire that brought down the plane. The failure of ValuJet to properly oversee its maintenance contractors. The failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to require smoke detection and fire suppression systems in Class D cargo compartments.
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