MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Family and friends of those killed when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Everglades have marked the 21st anniversary of the disaster.
Minutes after takeoff on May 11th, 1996, the pilots of the DC-9 reported smoke in the cabin and requested a return to Miami International Airport. The plane then dropped off the radar and plunged into the ground, killing all 110 people aboard. It was among the worst air disasters in Florida’s history.
Even after two decades, families of the victims say the tragedy still haunts them.
Rescuers arrived at the scene far from any roads in the Everglades about 20 miles east of Miami to find a shocking sight. The plane was gone, shredded into bits by the impact of the crash. Metal fuselage parts and small pieces of human tissue floated in a few feet of water, just below the service.
It was a charnel house that sickened searchers, and a hallowed site to those who lost someone in the crash.
It would be months before the majority of the plane’s pieces and all of the parts of the victims could be retrieved, and months more before the official cause was released.
What investigators knew was that the plane had been destroyed in mid-air by a massive on-board fire. When investigators finished their job, they believed they had the cause. Canisters which generated oxygen for the plane’s emergency systems, apparently improperly stored and loaded aboard the plane, ignited and caused tires in the hold to blaze.
Thick smoke filled the cabin, the pilots lost control, and the plane smashed into the shallow waters of the Everglades at near top speed. The plane disintegrated on impact.
The improper handling of the canisters, which used a chemical reaction to produce oxygen and in the process, generated heat, was blamed on Sabretech, a Valujet subcontractor. Something caused a canister to spark about 6 minutes into the flight, torching the tires upon which the box had been placed.
The cabin was filled with smoke, control cables were burned, and the doomed plane plunged to its death.
The finger pointing lasted more than a year. The airline was blasted for shoddy oversight. The subcontractor was accused of failing to follow procedure. The investigation highlighted a number of areas in which safety could be improved, one of the legacies of the Valujet disaster.
As motorists rush down Tamiami Trail heading for Miami or Naples, almost lost by the side of the road is the memorial reminding South Florida of the disaster and the dead. Columns at the memorial form an arrow pointing to the crash site on the horizon, 8 miles away, reachable only by airboat.
Temporarily grounded by safety questions, ValueJet eventually resumed flying. The investigation showed it outsourced many jobs and operated with one of the oldest fleets in the industry, buying planes many airlines no longer wanted.
It merged with a fellow low-cost carrier, AirTran, and even though it was the larger airline, it took the AirTran name, wiping from the skies the tainted name of ValuJet.
In 2011, AirTran was taken over by Southwest Airlines.