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Test Fire Video Shown at ValuJet Hearing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Relatives of those who perished when a ValuJet airliner crashed into the Florida Everglades last May watched dramatic video on Tuesday of test fires staged to learn more about the cargo hold blaze thought to have caused the tragedy.

The test fires took about six minutes to escalate from ignition into infernos, suggesting that the blaze that brought down Flight 592 may have started as the plane lifted off the runway at Miami International Airport. Temperatures of the test fires soared as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board--which is holding hearings on the disaster--believe the fire on Flight 592 was started by one of the 144 oxygen generators being carried as cargo on the plane. The shipment violated several federal regulations.

The generators--each of them a canister about the size of a beer can--normally are installed to provide oxygen for passengers in the event of sudden decompression. The chemical reaction releasing the oxygen generates 500-degree temperatures, but the canisters normally are insulated and shielded.

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During one of the tests on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 at the Federal Aviation Administration’s research facility at Atlantic City, N.J., boxes of unshielded canisters were stacked atop a large airplane tire, much as the boxes of unshielded canisters had been loaded atop a tire being carried as freight on Flight 592.

Warning his audience--which included relatives of some of the 110 passengers and crew members who died in the May 11 crash--about the graphic nature of what was about to be projected on two giant screens Tuesday afternoon, NTSB member John Goglia said:

“I strongly urge each of the family members here to reconsider watching this video.”

Several of them left the room.

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The video showed a fire that started when one of the generators was deliberately set off, unleashing a chain reaction as the mounting flames caused other canisters to follow suit. The oxygen-charged blaze evolved into blast-furnace intensity in about six minutes.

Popping, squawking noises from the bursting canisters accompanied the roar of the flames.

Marilyn Chamberlin, mother of Flight 592 pilot Candalyn Kubeck, was one of those who elected to watch the grim presentation.

“I had imagined every hellish scenario in my mind 100 times,” she said, “but I wasn’t prepared for the noise.”

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Investigators say the fire aboard Flight 592 may have started when some sort of jolt set off the spring-loaded, percussion-cap activation system on one of the canisters, leading to more canister explosions. The fire eventually spread upward to the main passenger cabin and cockpit.

Flight data and recordings recovered from the wreckage suggest the flames reached the cabin about six minutes after taking off, roughly the same time it took the test fire to reach full intensity. That suggests that Flight 592’s sharp upward rotation on takeoff might have provided the jolt necessary to set off one of the loosely packed canisters.

Goglia noted that the test conditions and equipment were not identical to those aboard the jetliner, and he warned the audience that the tests were “not designed to replicate or simulate the circumstances of Flight 592.”

The purpose, he said, “was to provide insights and understanding into the overall nature of a fire initiated by an oxygen generator and fed with high concentrations of oxygen.”

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Among those testifying during Tuesday’s session of the weeklong hearings was Lewis H. Jordan, former president and current board chairman of ValuJet.

Jordan defended the low-frills carrier, which underwent a series of FAA inspections because of repeated safety problems and was grounded for more than three months after the crash until serious deficiencies were corrected.

Reassuring the NTSB that his airline is now on the right track, Jordan said that the “No. 1 objective in an effective operation has to be safety.”


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