ValuJet fire's temperature may have hit 3,000 degrees Safety expert testifies on 2nd day of hearing

November 20, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- The fire that brought down ValuJet Flight 592 may have reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to burn stainless steel, according to a National Transportation Safety Board expert who showed a videotape yesterday of a roaring, white-hot fire fed by oxygen generators of the kind the DC-9 was carrying.

For years, the Federal Aviation Administration has contended that cargo holds of the kind where the fire occurred are safe because they are airtight and would smother a fire. But the holds are made mostly of aluminum, which melts and even burns at temperatures far below 3,000 degrees.

The testimony of the fire expert, Merritt Birky, came on the second day of the safety board's hearings being held in Miami on the crash, which occurred May 11 in the Florida Everglades.

Technical experts also questioned people who load and unload planes on how the oxygen generators had been handled and attempted to show that the fire might have begun well before the plane took off. If that is true, fire detection and suppression systems, which the board first recommended in 1988, would almost certainly have saved the 110 people on board, all of whom were killed in the crash.

"The time to flaming combustion was about five to seven minutes after initiation of a generator," said Birky, referring to several tests. After the plane pulled away from the terminal, 20 minutes passed before it started to take off.

"In my experience in fires, in 30 years, this is the hottest fire I've ever seen in the test apparatus," said Birky.

The FAA said late last week that it would draft rules to make fire detection and suppression systems mandatory on cargo holds like the one on the DC-9.

The oxygen generators are ordinarily carried as emergency equipment, but they were being carried as cargo on the ValuJet plane and were activated in flight because they had been improperly packed, the investigators believe. Birky showed two videotapes of test fires, conducted at an FAA laboratory early this month.

The company that packed the oxygen generators, Sabretech, a maintenance contractor, had objected vehemently to showing the videotape. Company officials said the test was not representative of conditions on the Valujet plane.

But the hearing officer, John Goglia, a member of the safety board, threatened to eject Sabretech from the proceedings for making its objections public in a letter it handed out at the hearing.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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