Murder charge in air crash

Maintenance firm accused by Fla., U.S. in '96 ValuJet accident

Fiery crash killed all 110

SabreTech official, mechanics accused of mishandling oxygen


WASHINGTON -- The aviation maintenance company that delivered oxygen canisters believed to be responsible for the 1996 ValuJet crash, in which all 110 people aboard were killed, was charged with murder and manslaughter yesterday, and the company, a vice president and two mechanics were charged with carelessly handling deadly materials.

Aviation experts say these were the first criminal charges brought in an airliner accident in the United States.

Federal safety investigators said the maintenance company, SabreTech, improperly packed and labeled old equipment called oxygen generators from two other ValuJet planes and delivered them to the flight, causing a fire in a cargo hold that might have broken out even before takeoff.

All aboard were killed when the DC-9 went down in the Everglades on May 11, 1996, shortly after takeoff from Miami on a flight to Atlanta.

"This crash was completely preventable," said Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state's attorney for Miami-Dade County. "This was not an accident. It was a crime. It was a homicide."

The 110 counts of murder against the company were filed by Rundle's office; a federal grand jury in Florida handed up the indictments on improper handling of materials.

If convicted on the federal charges, the three men could be sentenced to up to five years in jail and a fine of $250,000, and the company could face a fine of almost $6 million.

The company would also face a fine under the state charge, although prosecutors did not say how large.

Because SabreTech has ceased operations and sold its assets, meaningful punishment is unlikely unless the company sought to resume operations, said Donald R. Ungurait, a spokesman for Rundle.

SabreTech's assets were sold to Aviation Management Systems Inc. of Orlando, Fla. ValuJet renamed itself Airtran Airways.

The lawyer representing SabreTech, Kenneth P. Quinn, said the charges against the company were "utterly preposterous."

"They are attempting to criminalize a series of mistakes by many parties, not just SabreTech or some of its former mechanics," he said, pointing out that the National Transportation Safety Board had found fault not only with SabreTech but also with ValuJet, for failing to oversee its contractor, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which did not require smoke detectors in DC-9 cargo holds, among other problems.

Quinn said the company and the three men would plead not guilty.

The federal indictment named Eugene Florence, 37, and Mauro Valenzuela, 30, mechanics employed by subcontractors to SabreTech, and Daniel Gonzalez, in his mid-50s, then SabreTech's vice president for operations.

"These are not criminals; they are honest, well-intentioned mechanics who were trying to do the best they could with inadequate information that had been given them, by the airline and the federal government," he said.

After the accident, the FAA suspended their licenses for a year, he said.

The indictments largely echoed the findings of the NTSB, that technicians had removed the oxygen generators, small chemical reactors that provide oxygen in case of emergency, from the overhead panels of another airplane because their shelf life had expired, but had failed to install plastic safety caps that prevent the generators from starting up.

SabreTech, situated across a runway from the ValuJet ramp at Miami International Airport, conducted a hurried cleanup of its hangar because another prospective airline client, Continental, was taking a tour, and technicians packed the canisters loosely into cardboard cartons, with bubble wrap; then someone delivered them to a ValuJet plane that was being loaded with baggage for a flight to Atlanta.

SabreTech said it was returning the canisters to ValuJet because the airline owned them.

Rundle said, "We were not able to prove that any single individual was responsible for the homicides," but that "cumulative acts" made the airline culpable.

Guy Lewis, an assistant U.S. attorney, said "critical maintenance steps were left out" and company personnel falsely indicated that the safety caps had been installed.

Lewis did not say why the investigation took three years, but he said it was an "intense, painstaking, careful" process.

Aviation experts differed on what precedent the indictments would set.

Vernon E. Grose, a member of the NTSB in 1983-1984, said the threat of prosecution would make aviation companies "reticent."

"If I think I had equipment that looks like it's going to be raised as causative, then I'm going to be very, very cautious" in cooperating in an investigation, he said.

But Eliot Brenner, the chief spokesman for the FAA, said the threat of indictment is always present and many companies and individuals had been indicted, and convicted, in cases that did not involve crashes, for crimes such as selling counterfeit parts.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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