Pilot of Doomed Flight: 'We're Losing Everything'
Nov. 18, 1996
MIAMI (AP) _ Air traffic controllers were about to bid a ValuJet plane goodbye six minutes after takeoff when the pilot of the doomed Flight 592 told the co-pilot, ``We got some electrical problems. ... We're losing everything.''
As the crew began their final struggle to handle the aircraft, the cockpit voice recorder picked up the sounds of terrified passengers.
``Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!'' women shouted. ``We're on fire! We're on fire!'' a man said.
The transcript of the plane's final moments was released today as National Transportation Safety Board hearings got under way 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.
The transcript shows the tower air traffic controller, who is listening on a separate circuit and cannot hear the commotion in the plane, asks what the problem is, and is told, ``smoke in the cockp ... smoke in the cabin.'' The tower gives instructions to descend, as the plane attempts to return to the Miami airport.
At one point, a flight attendant is heard saying, ``We need oxygen. We can't get oxygen back there.''
The last recorded voice from the plane is 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.
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 were 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 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.''