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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Service Firm Charged Over Jet Crash




MIAMI -- An airline maintenance company was charged by the state of Florida with murder and manslaughter for improperly packaging oxygen canisters blamed for the 1996 ValuJet crash that killed 110 people in the Everglades.


The company, SabreTech Inc., and three employees also were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, making false statements, and, in the case of the company, failing to train the personnel who handled the hazardous material.


It was believed to be the first time in U.S. aviation history that criminal charges were filed against maintenance workers after an accidental airplane crash, said Mike Boyd, president of the Colorado-basedMike Boyd Group that researches aviation issues.


The state murder and manslaughter counts against SabreTech do not require proof of premeditation or intent.


"This crash was completely preventable,'' said Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Miami-Dade County. "It was not an accident like many other crashes are. It was a crime.''


If convicted on the federal charges, SabreTech faces a possible $6 million in fines and restitution. The workers could be sentenced up to 55 years in prison and fined $2.7 million.


SabreTech said prosecutors ignored National Transportation Safety Board findings, which had spread the blame among SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration for lax oversight.


"We are not going to stand idly by and be made a criminal scapegoat for this tragedy,'' said Kenneth Quinn, an attorney for SabreTech. "This was a horrific accident, not a crime.''


Crash investigators found that SabreTech workers improperly packaged the oxygen generators without their required safety caps and falsely labeled them as empty. ValuJet workers loaded them into the cargo hold for transportation.


Investigators said the oxygen generators activated, causing the cargo fire that tore through the floor of the passenger cabin shortly after takeoff on a flight from Miami to Atlanta.


The federal indictment said mechanics Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela signed off on FAA-approved work orders and falsely indicated they had fastened the required safety caps.


The indictment also alleges that Daniel Gonzalez, SabreTech's vice president of maintenance and repair work, pressured workers to falsify and prematurely certify the performance and completion of work.


Federal arrest warrants were issued, and the three men were expected to surrender by Thursday.


The FAA has proposed a record fine of $2.25 million against SabreTech for improperly handling the canisters.


The FAA grounded Atlanta-based ValuJet after the crash. The airline later merged with the Orlando-based discount carrier AirTran and now flies under the name AirTran.