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ValuJet: Subcontractor deliberately mislabeled deadly cargo

ValuJet graphic

Says canisters were put on doomed flight to pass inspection

August 14, 1997
Web posted at: 7:41 p.m. EDT (2341 GMT)

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- ValuJet Airlines is alleging that a maintenance subcontractor deliberately mislabeled a shipment of oxygen canisters put aboard Flight 592, which crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1996.

Federal investigators believe those canisters led to a fire aboard the Miami-to-Atlanta flight that likely caused it to plunge from the sky, killing all 110 people aboard.

Oxygen canister

In a press release issued Thursday, Atlanta-based ValuJet said the subcontractor, SabreTech, wanted to get the oxygen canisters out of its Miami facility in order to pass an inspection by a potential new client, Continental Airlines.

SabreTech employees deliberately mislabeled the cartons for shipment aboard Flight 592, even though they knew the canisters could be dangerous, ValuJet alleges.

The airline said it has provided evidence to support its allegations to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Miami.

SabreTech calls charges preposterous

SabreTech's attorney, Kenneth P. Quinn, called the new charges preposterous, pointing out that federal investigators found that ValuJet knowingly carried hazardous materials at least six times in 1996.

"I think this is more of the hysterical rantings of an airline that is about to be cited by the NTSB for serious shortcomings that contributed to the crash," Quinn said. "I think it's another effort by ValuJet to put up a smokescreen to their own ineptitude."

The NTSB is scheduled to release preliminary findings Tuesday in its investigation of the crash of Flight 592. ValuJet has asked the NTSB to investigate its recent allegations before releasing that report.

Since the crash, ValuJet and SabreTech have been exchanging charges about who was responsible for the full oxygen generators put in the cargo hold of the doomed flight.

The generators create a chemical reaction that can produce oxygen for passengers' use if a plane loses cabin pressure. The reaction produces intense heat.

ValuJet has maintained that it thought the oxygen generators were empty when it accepted them for shipment. The company alleges that a SabreTech employee, Andrew Salas, told fellow employees to designate the canisters as empty and then signed a false document.

Excerpts of interviews released

To bolster its claims that SabreTech deliberately mislabeled the canisters, the airline released excerpts of interviews by FAA investigators with Salas and his supervisor, Bill Giral:

  • Salas said he was told to get the boxes off the floor and asked Giral if he should ship them to Atlanta. In his statement, Giral said that when he found out the canisters went out on a ValuJet passenger flight, he "could not believe it."

  • Salas told investigators he was unfamiliar with oxygen generators and had never shipped any, and he denied any knowledge of shipping the canisters on Flight 592. But documents verifying the shipment showed his signature.

FAA responds to issues

Crash site of Valujet flight 592

Also on Thursday, the FAA responded to several issues that had been raised by the NTSB's investigation into the Everglades crash:

  • Concerning charges that ValuJet's chief of maintenance at the time of the crash may have falsified his qualifications for the job, the FAA said it has taken no action because it is devoting its resources to improving the airline's current safety.

    "The message we've sent to airlines is that we will not tolerate that behavior in the future," said an FAA statement.

  • Responding to concerns that Spanish-speaking SabreTech employees may not have been able to read maintenance manuals or shipping labels, the FAA said, "Inspectors are now confident ValuJet can meet safety standards."

    ValuJet no longer uses SabreTech as a maintenance subcontractor.

  • The agency said Thursday that it still plans to give airlines three years to put smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in passenger plane cargo holds.

    Despite at least two incidents this year where oxygen canisters were carried on passenger planes, the FAA still said it believes the risk isn't great enough to require the changes immediately.

Correspondent Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.


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