Related topics

Pilot of Doomed Flight: ‘We’re Losing Everything’

November 18, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ Air traffic controllers were about to bid a ValuJet plane goodbye minutes after takeoff when the pilot of the doomed flight told the co-pilot, ``We’re losing everything,″ and passengers screamed, ``Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!″

A transcript released today of the final moments of Flight 592 shows the tower air traffic controller asking what the problem is and being told, ``Smoke in the cockp ... smoke in the cabin.″ The tower gives instructions to descend, as the plane attempts to return to Miami airport.

At one point, a flight attendant is heard saying: ``We need oxygen. We can’t get oxygen back there.″

``We’re on fire! We’re on fire!″ one man screamed. ``Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!″ some women cried.

The last recorded voice from the plane before it crashed into the Everglades is that of a crew member telling the tower, ``We need the, uh, closest airport available.″

The chilling sounds of panicking passengers are heard on three segments of the eight-minute recording, which ends with the sounds of rushing air, perhaps from an open cockpit window venting smoke.

The transcript was released as National Transportation Safety Board hearings began into the May 11 crash that killed 110 people. At the hearing, an official of the company that handled the oxygen canisters suspected of causing the fire defended his company’s work but acknowledged that mistakes were made.

A separate report issued today disclosed that Phoenix-based SabreTech Inc., ValuJet’s Miami maintenance company, committed a series of blunders in handling the more than 150 oxygen canisters carried in the DC-9′s cargo hold that are suspected of igniting the fire.

A stock clerk didn’t know what oxygen generators were, but weighed five boxes of them and labeled them for shipment to ValuJet’s headquarters in Atlanta, the report said.

The canisters had been at the SabreTech maintenance facility for two weeks to two months, and some had activated while in storage. SabreTech got them ready for shipment to clean up their base for an inspection.

Shipping caps are supposed to be installed on the canisters to prevent them from activating by accident, but none was requested by mechanics, the documents showed.

SabreTech President Steven Townes testified that mechanics believed they had disabled the triggering mechanisms of the canisters before they were packed.

But Townes acknowledged that the NTSB investigation uncovered many flaws in the company’s handling of the canisters. The probe found employees performed sloppy paperwork and failed to follow federal procedures for handling the devices.

``In the last six months there’s been an abundance of lessons learned,″ he said.

A forklift driver who loaded the boxes of canisters and three aircraft tires onto a truck for delivery to ValuJet said they could go on Flight 592 or the next one. They made the first flight.

After years of resistance, the Federal Aviation Administration last week accepted a recommendation for fire detectors and extinguishers in cargo compartments of 2,800 older aircraft.

The NTSB’s recommendation for cargo compartment fire detectors and extinguishers came after an injury-free cargo fire in 1988. The FAA rejected it in 1993, primarily because of the estimated $350 million cost.

This week’s hearing also will examine the handling of hazardous cargo, aircraft maintenance by outsiders and the supervision of startup airlines.

NTSB officials met privately Sunday with survivors of crash victims to help them prepare for today’s hearing.

``I don’t know whether I want to know what the last minutes were like,″ Lee Sawyer of Coral Gables, whose parents died aboard Flight 592, told The Miami Herald. ``That would be the horror of it all, the last minute.″

But Richard Kessler, an attorney from Atlanta whose wife, Kathleen, was killed on the plane, said he wanted to hear the tape and was upset that only the transcript was released.

``I’m going to Washington after this to try to get them to change the law,″ to make such tapes available to victims’ relatives.

Update hourly