MIAMI, Fla. – Alongside Amelia Earhart — a pioneering female pilot who disappeared attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937 — and D.B. Cooper — who jumped out of a hijacked 727 in mid-flight in 1971 — aviation historians want to know the exact whereabouts of Mauro Valenzuela.
Though Valenzuela, full name is Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-Reyes, may not be as familiar to many people, his actions while working as an aviation mechanic in 1996 are directly linked to a plane crash that killed more than 100 people and would have a profound effect on the future of commercial passenger aviation safety in the U.S. and across the world.
The story begins on May 11, 1996, when ValuJet Airlines flight 592 — N904VJ- a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 en route from Miami to Atlanta — crashed about 15 miles from Miami International Airport.
Less than eleven minutes after takeoff, the aircraft went into a steep dive after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit and the plane was on fire. Flight 592 subsequently plunged into the Florida Everglades killing five crew members and 105 passengers.
Investigators from both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board theorized that a fire in the cargo hold, which most likely destroyed cables running to and from the cockpit, caused the pilots to lose control of the aircraft.
In addition, there were three aircraft tires loaded as freight in the belly of the plane and investigators believe at least one exploded before the crash as a loud pop was heard on the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the scene.
Federal investigators would later determine the fire was caused by a restricted payload carried in the plane’s forward cargo compartment, specifically chemical oxygen generators listed in the plane’s cargo manifest.
A chemical oxygen generator is a small canister used on an aircraft to provide oxygen to passengers during an in-flight emergency. Oxygen is produced as a by-product when sodium chloride is burned; that burning is set off by a concussion device. The chemical reaction to produce oxygen generates incredible heat of more than 500 degrees which is why, when transporting and storing the oxygen generators, safety caps are used to keep them from activating.
ValuJet 592 had 144 oxygen generators on board that had been recently removed from three newly acquired used MD-80 aircraft at a Miami facility run by the airline’s maintenance contractor, SabreTech. Investigators would later discover some of the oxygen generator canisters still had unexpended oxidizer cores and there were no safety caps on the canisters. The NTSB concluded the fire on flight 592 started when one or more canisters discharged after being shaken or tipped over in the forward cargo hold.
In 1996, forward cargo hold compartments on a commercial jetliner were classified as class D, which had no fire or smoke detection systems to alert the crew if a fire or smoke situation arose as fires would extinguish naturally when oxygen was used up as the compartment was airtight. But for ValuJet 592, with dozens of oxygen-producing devices in a confined area, an unchecked fire would not burn out. At the time, airlines were not authorized to carry this cargo, safety caps or not, in this part of the plane, especially since there was no fire and smoke detection system.
The NTSB made a recommendation to the FAA to install fire suppression systems in cargo holds in both 1988 and 1991. The FAA ignored the recommendations, saying that the initial cost to the airlines would be too much and that the lack of oxygen in the sealed cargo areas would snuff out any fires.
Once federal authorities knew why ValuJet 592 went down, the question was who was responsible? That’s where the story turns to Mauro Valenzuela.
More than three years after the crash, on July 13, 1999, three employees from SabreTech were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy and making false statements stemming from lying to the FAA and falsifying work cards. The three men were Daniel Gonzalez, VP and Director of Maintenance for SabreTech, Eugene Florence, a SabreTech mechanic, and Valenzuela, also a SabreTech mechanic.
The SabreTech trial started on November 15, 1999 and concluded on December 6, 1999. The outcome: SabreTech was convicted of nine counts of criminal hazardous materials violations, but Gonzalez and Florence were acquitted of conspiracy charges.
Valenzuela, who fled before the trial began, was indicted in absentia on contempt of court charges and, 25 years later, still remains a fugitive. A federal warrant for his arrest was issued on April 6, 2000 and currently, there is a reward of up to $10,000 being offered by the FBI for information leading to his capture.
SabreTech was also cleared of cutting corners on safety to save money, despite loading the canisters into five paper towel boxes and failing to label the cargo as hazardous material — the company indicated the canisters were empty, not full).
On August 14, 2000, a federal court ordered SabreTech to pay $11 million for hazardous materials violations. The judgment was broken down as a fine of $2 million and damages of $9 million. Even though the company was out of business, its parent company, Sabreliner of St. Louis was paying its legal fees despite Sabreliner having no financial liability to its incorporated subsidiary.
On May 22, 2001, SabreTech agreed to pay an FAA fine of $1.75 million — originally $2.25 million — but admitted no wrongdoing. The company became the first U.S. corporation to be convicted of criminal charges stemming from a commercial airline crash. Federal trial judge J.L. Edmundson said in published reports he didn’t believe there was any violation of the law in the case and that he thought eight of the nine counts could be overturned on appeal. Edmundson did say, however, one count would stand: failure to train employees in the proper handling of hazardous materials.
On July 13, 2000, SabreTech was charged by the state of Florida with 110 counts of murder in the third degree, 110 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawful transportation of hazardous material. Three months later, on October 26, Sabreliner agreed to donate $500,000 to aviation safety in return for a plea of no-contest against its former subsidiary SabreTech. The no-contest plea would be for the one count of unlawful transport of hazardous waste; for that plea, the state would withdraw the murder and manslaughter charges. Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick set a date of December 7, 2001 for the hearing. A majority of the money went to the National Air Disaster Alliance Foundation.
SabreTech’s attorney, Martin Raskin said that there was no point prosecuting a company that was out of business and deep in debt.
By October 29, 2001, SabreTech was still awaiting an appeal ruling from an appellate court on the federal conviction. That appellate court ruling came on August 27, 2002. The outcome: SabreTech’s $11 million fine was reduced to just $500,000. As Edmundson predicted, eight of the nine counts were overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The one count that stuck: failure to train workers in the proper handling of hazardous materials. With that ruling, all criminal prosecution was concluded on the ValuJet 592 crash.
As a result of this crash, the FAA mandated smoke detection and suppression systems in class D cargo holds for all U.S. commercial aircraft. The agency gave airlines until March 19, 2001 to implement the changes. About 3,480 U.S. aircraft were affected at a cost of about $90,000 for each upgrade, costing a total of more than $300 million. All cargo aircraft were now required to have fire and smoke detection systems and the ability to shut down airflow to the cargo areas. Oxygen canisters were banned as cargo on passenger jets almost immediately after the crash.
ValuJet recovered from the crash but with a tarnished name. After being grounded for a number of months, ValuJet eventually re-branded itself and started using the AirTran name in September 1997. AirTran would later be absorbed by Southwest Airlines in September of 2010.