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Airline-Maintenance Firm Convicted of 9 Violations Linked to ValuJet Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal jury on Monday found an airline-maintenance company guilty of nine hazardous-materials violations in connection with the handling of oxygen containers blamed for the 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592, which killed 110 people.

SabreTech was cleared of the more serious charges of conspiracy and causing a destructive device to be put aboard an airplane.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 08, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 8, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
ValuJet--A story in Tuesday’s Times quoted an attorney for SabreTech, the airline maintenance firm found guilty in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, as saying that loading uncapped oxygen canisters into the plane’s cargo hold “was a mistake--it turns out a very bad mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.” The quote is accurate, but referred to SabreTech’s failure to place safety caps on the canisters. SabreTech employees did not load canisters into the plane.

The firm--which no longer exists as such--faces possible fines of up to $2.25 million and may have to compensate the victims’ families as well.

But SabreTech lawyer Ken Quinn said the company has “a negative net worth” and is unable to pay anything. He said the verdicts will be appealed.

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The jury also found two former SabreTech employees--mechanic Eugene Florence and Daniel Gonzalez, then a maintenance vice president--not guilty of falsifying records and mishandling a dangerous cargo of oxygen generators, which investigators said caught fire and led to the crash of the DC-9.

A third defendant, Mauro Valenzuela, remains a fugitive.

Both the prosecution and defense claimed victory on the courthouse steps Monday after what is believed to be the first federal criminal case brought in connection with an American air disaster.

Relatives of some of the victims were dissatisfied. “I think they got off on a lot of charges I would have liked to see them found guilty on,” said Laura Sawyer, whose grandparents died in the crash.

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But some experts said the verdicts are understandable. “I think justice was served,” said Carl E.B. McKenry Jr., a professor of management and law at the University of Miami. “There is a conviction on the record for gross negligence, but it was tough to hold the company or any individuals responsible for criminal conduct.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash was caused by a fire that broke out in the plane’s forward cargo compartment among 144 oxygen-generating canisters that were improperly secured, labeled and packaged. The outdated generators--beer-can-sized containers of chemicals that provide oxygen when cabin pressure is lost--had been removed from two other ValuJet aircraft and were being returned to the airline’s base in Atlanta.

Flight 592 spiraled into the Everglades just 11 minutes after taking off from Miami International Airport.

SabreTech was charged with one count of conspiracy, four counts of making false statements, 17 hazardous-materials violations and one count of causing a destructive device to be loaded onto a commercial aircraft.

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The firm also faces trial in state court on 110 counts of murder and manslaughter in connection with the crash. That trial could begin late next year.

During two weeks of testimony before the federal jury of nine women and three men, prosecutors argued that a corporate culture emphasizing profits over safety created pressure on employees to save time by falsifying work records.

“Fundamentally, this is a case about lying,” said U.S. Atty. Caroline Heck Miller. “One of the lies turned out to be about something very important. SabreTech’s urge to have its business done overtook other considerations, including safety considerations.”

Florence was singled out for signing a work order on which he said he had installed safety caps on the volatile oxygen generators. He later admitted that he had lied.

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Gonzalez shared in the responsibility by signing off on work not done.

Attorneys for the defendants admitted that mistakes were made but said that neither the company nor the two employees intended to commit a crime. Loading the uncapped canisters into the jet’s cargo hold “was a mistake--it turns out a very bad mistake, but a mistake nonetheless,” said Jane Raskin, who represents SabreTech.

“I’m not saying they didn’t use bad judgment,” Raskin said. “If we had it to do over again, we’d all do better. Maybe that’s not good enough, but it’s not a crime.”

SabreTech was a subsidiary of a privately held St. Louis firm, Sabreliner. After the ValuJet crash, the company closed its Miami office and reopened in Orlando. Its assets were eventually sold to Aviation Management Systems Inc. of Orlando.

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ValuJet was grounded after the crash but later merged with Orlando-based Airtran Airways and continues to fly under that name.

The airline has settled most of the lawsuits brought by the families of the victims, although a few remain scheduled for trial.

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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