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Jet Crashes Near Miami International Airport, No Sign of Survivors

May 12, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ A commercial airliner carrying 109 people crashed ``like a bullet into the ground″ Saturday in the Florida Everglades after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit and attempted to return to Miami International Airport.

There was no sign of survivors. Rescue efforts in the waist-high swamp were hampered by aviation fuel covering the crash site and concerns about alligators and snakes.

There were few recognizable parts of the DC-9 operated by ValuJet Airlines Inc., a young airline that has had several recent runway accidents and is being inspected by the FAA. Rescue crews found pieces of the plane measuring up to 6 feet.

The plane, en route to Atlanta with 104 passengers and a crew of five, went down about 20 miles northwest of the airport. It was in the air for about eight minutes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Lauren Gail, a spokeswoman for Miami International Airport, said the airport tower received a report of smoke in the cockpit at 2:14 p.m., several minutes after takeoff. She said Flight 592 disappeared from the tower’s radar 11 minutes later.

FAA spokeswoman Christy Williams said the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit.

The plane was at about 10,500 feet and about 100 miles west of Miami at the time, Williams said. The weather was sunny with a few clouds.

In the last two years, the plane had maintenance problems ranging from an oil leak to problems with a hydraulic pump and a cabin depressurization that forced it to divert to Memphis, Tenn., according to FAA records.

Some rescuers had reported seeing bodies. But a rescuer who returned from the site later said he had seen none. Workers called off their search late Saturday night and planned to resume at daybreak Sunday. Earlier, staff from the county medical examiner’s office used infrared devices to look for bodies.

``I felt the most emotional when I saw a family album floating on the water and it was a mother and child,″ said Fire-Rescue Lt. Chris Aguirre, one of the first at the scene. He said he also saw baby clothes and a floating seat from the DC-9.

Aerial video shots showed what appeared to be debris spread over a region of the Everglades, an area of desolate, swampy grasslands stretching across much of southern Florida.

Private pilot Daniel Muelhaupt was flying nearby when he saw the plane go down.

``The way it went into the ground, the way it crashed, it shot like a bullet into the ground,″ he told CNN. ``When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up. The wreckage was like if you take your garbage and just throw it on the ground, it looked like that.″

The jet was about 25 years old and was last inspected on Tuesday, said ValuJet president Lewis Jordan.

``There’s no concern that the engine is in any way suspected at this time,″ he said at a news conference at ValuJet’s Atlanta headquarters. He said there were no tapes available yet of the cockpit’s conversation with the tower.

``All our thoughts and prayers and our sincere emotions go out to the people on board the airplane ... It’s impossible to put into words how devastating this is to people who care,″ Jordan said.

According to the FAA records, various maintenance problems plaguing the plane forced it to return to airports seven times in the past two years. On most occasions the problems were resolved by routine maintenance. One of the most serious incidents was a faulty landing gear latch that was replaced after it was discovered in 1994.

On Saturday, Muelhaupt said the plane was pointing down about 75 degrees and that he first thought it was a small plane doing maneuvers. He said he radioed authorities and circled until they reached the scene.

Chris Osceola, who was bass fishing nearby, also saw the plane dive into the water.

``I said, `It’s gonna crash! It’s gonna crash!′ And then, boom!″ he told the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale.

President Clinton issued a statement from the White House offering his condolences.

``All Americans join Hillary and me in offering our hopes and prayers to the families and friends of those aboard the ValuJet that has so tragically crashed near the Miami airport. Although we fear the worst, we are hoping and praying for their safety,″ Clinton said.

Clinton asked Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson to personally inspect the accident scene.

National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Robert Francis said late Saturday that the task of determining what caused the crash will be made more difficult because of the harsh terrain.

``This will not be the friendliest environment to do an accident investigation,″ Francis said at a news conference in Miami.

ValuJet quickly escorted relatives in Miami and Atlanta to private areas where they were told news of the crash and offered counseling.

One woman sitting at a gate in Atlanta was waiting for her sister to arrive. She said she didn’t know any details.

``I don’t know. I’m trying to find out,″ she said, wiping tears from her face.

Among the passengers on Flight 592 were San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver and his wife, Karen, of Woodstock, Ga.

``They don’t come any better than Rodney,″ said Bobby Beathard, the NFL team’s general manager.

Passengers F. Conway Hamilton and his wife, Laurie Hamilton, of Coral Gables were heading to their granddaughter’s college graduation.

``It’s the worst thing in the world you think of and the last thing you expect,″ the granddaughter, Laura Sawyer, told The Miami Herald. ``They were real excited about coming up. I was their first grandchild to graduate from college.″

Flight attendant Donna Gray was midway between her usual ValuJet run between Boston and Philadelphia when she heard about the crash. She said the entire flight crew was stunned, but kept their composure as they returned to Boston.

Then she saw her friend, flight attendant Mandy Summers, on the list.

``When we got here and everyone left, I just started bawling,″ she said.

Atlanta businessman Terry Huckabee was scheduled to take Flight 592 but missed it.

``I lost a dollar in the vending machine and I said `I’m having a bad day,′ Huckabee said. ``They said, `No, you’re the luckiest man alive. It’s lucky you missed your flight.‴

The crash of the ValuJet flight was reminiscent of an Eastern airlines jumbo jetliner that went down in the Everglades on Dec. 29, 1972, killing 101 of 176 people aboard.

The last major crash of a large plane was Sept. 8, 1994, when a USAir jetliner crashed on approach to Pittsburgh International Airport, killing all 132 on board.

ValuJet, which began operations in October 1993, serves 31 cities in 19 states. The airline has experienced various problems in the past.

In January, a ValuJet DC-9 got stuck in mud at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. The 101 passengers were bused to a terminal.

Also in January, another ValuJet DC-9 with 30 people on board slid into a snowbank after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, closing the airport for nearly three hours. No one was hurt.

A ValuJet DC-9 also skidded off an icy runway at Dulles in January 1994, closing the airport for almost two hours.

The FAA launched about 375 inspections of ValuJet in February, examining ``literally every plane, every route,″ said Anthony J. Broderick, the agency’s associate administrator for regulation and certification.

The bottom line: No significant safety deficiencies were found, he said.

Last summer, the FAA announced special inspections of aircraft engines that ValuJet purchased from a Turkish airline.

That investigation stemmed from a June 8, 1995, fire that destroyed a ValuJet DC-9 on a runway at Atlanta. One flight attendant was burned and minor injuries were reported as the 57 passengers and five crew were evacuated.


ValuJet’s number for family information is 1-800-486-4346.

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