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DC-9 Crashes Into Everglades; All 109 Are Feared Dead

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A ValuJet DC-9 carrying 104 passengers and a crew of five plunged into the Everglades and virtually disintegrated Saturday. There were no signs of survivors.

The jetliner, bound for Atlanta, went down 15 miles northwest of Miami International Airport about 2:25 p.m. EDT, shortly after taking off. The pilot was apparently attempting to return to Miami after reporting smoke in the cockpit, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

Flight 592 had taken off about 2 p.m. and was about 100 miles from the airport when the pilot signaled the control tower of his intention to return for an emergency landing, according to FAA spokesman Anthony Willet.

According to Lewis Jordan, president of Atlanta-based ValuJet Airlines Inc., the plane’s crew indicated at 2:15 p.m. that it was returning. Soon after, the aircraft disappeared from the radar screens of air traffic controllers.

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A private pilot said he was flying near the site of the crash and saw the plane go down. The DC-9 was flying toward the ground in a “75-degree nose-down position,” said Daniel Muelhaupt, who initially thought the plane might be practicing flight maneuvers and would begin to ascend before reaching the ground.

“When it hit the ground and I saw the dirt and water fly up in the air, I knew something was wrong,” Muelhaupt told Cable News Network. He said he reported the crash by radio and circled the site to help authorities locate it.

Within an hour of the crash, relatives and friends of those on board began arriving grim-faced at Miami International Airport, where they were directed by a hastily drawn sign that misspelled the airline’s name: “Value Jet Family Room.” Inside the small auditorium, counselors were on hand.

Although the crash site is only 12 miles north of the airport, and half that distance from a busy commercial and residential area, it took rescuers more than three hours to reach the scene through rugged, swampy terrain that is nearly inaccessible by land.

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“It’s a watery, marshy area and it’s proving difficult to reach the crash,” said Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for Metro-Dade County Fire-Rescue.

With daylight fading, rescuers ferried in by helicopters arrived at the site about 5:30 p.m. After listening to warnings about alligators and poisonous snakes, some used diving gear to begin probing beneath the surface of the 4- to 5-foot-deep water. Rushing to take advantage of fading daylight, rescuers placed floating markers but held out little hope of finding anyone alive.

The search was scaled back at nightfall and will resume early today, authorities said. Fernandez said officials hope to construct a makeshift road to the crash site.

Several members of the Miccosukee Indian tribe showed up in airboats to aid the search but were prohibited from entering the area because of the volatile jet fuel in the water. The crash site is a few miles north of the tribe’s village and near the northern boundary of Everglades National Park.

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“The fuel is sitting there waiting for ignition,” Fernandez said.

Long before the first rescuers reached the scene, Coast Guard searchers and news media crews, hovering above the site in helicopters, reported no signs of survivors.

No complete list of passengers had been released, but San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver, 26, and his wife, Karen, were believed to have been aboard.

“We’re hoping like heck there’s some mix-up,” general manager Bobby Beathard said Saturday.

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Culver, from Detroit, played at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1992. He went to San Diego last year as a backup to Natrone Means.

As the crash scene was surveyed from the air, what was visible was a patch of scorched saw grass and countless bits of debris that looked like Christmas tinsel as they reflected the afternoon sun. Nothing that could be seen from the air was remotely recognizable as a piece of an aircraft.

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

“The Coast Guard decided there was no reason to put someone on the ground. The Coast Guard pulled out of” the rescue effort, said Daniel McShane, assistant law enforcement duty officer at the Coast Guard command center in Miami. “We’re not going to search for survivors. There’s nobody there to rescue. They called off the paramedics and the triage team. There’s no need for them.”

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The first Coast Guard plane arrived within minutes of the crash and saw smoke, apparently from burning fuel. Even then, McShane said, “there was nothing left” of the airplane, only what one Coast Guard pilot on the scene called “a smoking hole” where the plane apparently burrowed into the limestone under the water.

As is most of the area west of Miami’s urban sprawl, the site of the crash is part of the Everglades ecosystem, a vast plain of saw grass and scrub vegetation in a slow-moving freshwater river that runs south down the center of Florida from Lake Okeechobee.

In a statement from Washington, President Clinton said: “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 asked Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA chief David Hinson to personally inspect the accident scene.

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At a brief news conference in Miami late Saturday night, National Transportation Safety Board officials said it was far too early to know much about the accident and that they were prepared for a difficult investigation in the Everglades water and muck.

ValuJet, which began operations in 1993, is a no-frills airline offering service to 31 cities and 19 states. “It is impossible to put into words how devastating this is to people who care,” said Jordan, ValuJet’s president, during a press conference at airline headquarters.

He said the aircraft that went down first saw service in 1969 and was last inspected May 7. That inspection “found nothing of consequence,” Jordan said.

Jordan dismissed speculation as to the cause of the crash. “There’s no concern that the engine is in any way suspect at this time,” he said.

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Weather was not believed to be a factor. Skies were mostly sunny, and winds were light.

FAA records show the plane that crashed had had maintenance problems ranging from an oil leak to problems with a hydraulic pump and a cabin depressurization that forced it to divert a flight, the Associated Press reported.

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.

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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.

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.

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One flight attendant was burned and minor injuries were reported as the 57 passengers and five crew were evacuated.

Clary reported from Miami and Shogren reported from Washington. Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

ValuJet Crash

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A ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Everglades after the crew reported trouble in the cockpit and tried to return to Miami. All 109 people aboard the Atlanta-bound flight are believed to have died.

McDonnell Douglas DC-9

Wing-span: 107 ft., 10 in.

Length: 147 ft., 10 in.

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Crew: 5

Passenger capacity: 119

First flight: 1965

Cruising speed: 513 mph

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Range: 1,076 miles


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