May 11th, 1996, was a day that would forever change the aircraft industry and the lives of many who worked in it. One of those people, aircraft mechanic Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes, remains missing to this day.
A fire that shouldn’t have started
The story begins with ValuJet Airlines flight 592 crashing into the Florida Everglades while en route from Miami to Atlanta. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots heard a loud bang and passengers noticed smoke in the cabin and began yelling, “Fire, fire!”
Their perceptions, sadly, would prove correct. It was a fire in a cargo compartment below the passenger cabin that led to the crash, which ultimately took the lives of 105 passengers, two pilots and three flight attendants. The tragedy would never have taken place if not for a series of fateful decisions, misunderstandings and lapses in safety protocols.
Hazardous cargo they should have known about
At that time, fire suppression was not required in cargo compartments, because it was believed that a fire starting in such a cramped, airless environment would quickly burn itself out. The problem in the case of Flight 592 is that more than 140 chemical oxygen generators were stored in the cargo compartment. The placement of these canisters, directly in violation of FAA regulations regarding the storage of hazardous materials, was more than enough to not only keep a fire going but to result in the dangerous combustion that ultimately took the plane down.
Employees of SabreTech, the maintenance company hired by ValuJet, mislabeled the canisters as empty, leaving ValuJet workers to mistakenly believe that they were safe for transport. An investigation revealed that the likely cause of the crash was the burning of cables connected to the cockpit which rendered the airplane uncontrollable.
A legal reckoning and legacy of safer travel
An investigation placed responsibility on Sabretech for mishandling dangerous materials, ValuJet for failing to supervise their maintenance contractor and the FAA for failing to implement and enforce regulations regarding fire suppression. SabreTech’s maintenance supervisor and two mechanics who worked on the plane were charged with conspiracy and making false statements. One of those mechanics, Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes, went missing and is still at large today. The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
As tragic as the story of Flight 592 is, the crash left a legacy of safer air travel and improved regulations that benefits everyone who travels by air today. For airlines, maintenance providers and individual workers such as aircraft mechanics, the story underscores the importance of knowing and following safety protocols and taking immediate action when a safety hazard presents itself. The story also illustrates the need for experienced aviation law counsel in the event something goes wrong.