| THE AFTERMATH|
- VALUJET FLIGHT 592
May 13, 1996
MARGARET WARNER: The area where ValuJet Flight 592 crashed is a flat, desolate expanse of the Florida Everglades. The Atlanta-bound DC-9 left Miami at 2:05 Saturday afternoon. Eight minutes later, the crew reported smoke in the cockpit and in the passenger cabin and asked to return to the Miami Airport. The plane was turning when it disappeared from the radar screen at 2:25 PM.
GREG FEITH, NTSB Chief Investigator: They had asked for the closest airport. They were being vectored, and then, uh, the last transmission by the air traffic controller was a statement of Opalaca Airport, 12 o'clock and 15 miles.
MARGARET WARNER: According to eyewitnesses, the plane plunged nose first into the thick muck of the Florida swamp. There were no survivors.
DR. JOSEPH DAVIS, Retired Dade City Medical Examiner: I feel that it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to identify everybody. But that remains to be seen. So far, there is not much hope that we're going to recover any intact bodies.
MARGARET WARNER: The plane and its 109 passengers were simply sucked into the water and mud. The only access to the crash site is by helicopter or air boat. Small teams of searchers held hands for their own safety as they carefully stepped through the swamp looking for parts of the aircraft and human remains. Divers also have been working their way through the fuel-soaked water and mud.
GREG FEITH: Depending on the reports that we've gotten back from the divers that have already been out there, because the visibility is very low, they're down to less than an inch as underwater visibility. A lot of it's being done by feel, either walking or feeling their way into the wreckage area.
MARGARET WARNER: ValuJet, founded in 1993 as a low-priced carrier, has grown rapidly. It holds costs down in part by frequently buying older aircraft that have been retired by other airlines. ValuJet has had at least three accidents since it began operations. The most serious, before now, was a runway fire that injured one person. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the DC-9 that crashed Saturday was forced to return to the airport seven times in the past two years because of maintenance problems. Yet, the 27-year-old plane had passed an annual inspection last October and a routine inspection just last week. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena said yesterday that the airline came under intensive scrutiny in an investigation this winter.
FEDERICO PENA, Secretary of Transportation: Back in February of this year, because of four incidents that ValuJet experienced and because they had gone through a rapid rate of growth, we launched a very intensive review of their operations. We had seven full-time inspectors working basically for an intensive one-week period. That continued for 120 days. Any time any airline in our country experiences an accident we intensify and broaden our review of their operations. That's what we announced yesterday because of this, and now we will go even further into their entire operations to ensure that they are complying with every detail of our safety regulations.
MARGARET WARNER: This afternoon, President Clinton directed the Transportation Department to report this week on any additional safety measures that might be required for airline safety generally.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I have directed Sec. Pena to report to me this week on additional measures the Department of Transportation and the FAA can take to ensure that all our airlines continue to operate at the highest level of safety. I'm determined to do everything I can to make sure that American aviation is the safest in the world.
MARGARET WARNER: In the meantime, rescue teams and investigators in the Everglades continued their work. National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis spoke to the press earlier today.
ROBERT FRANCIS, NTSB Vice-Chairman: There are five teams of divers out there, and I guess there are about thirty divers altogether. These folks, the conditions are such that they're doing 20 minute stints out in the water. They're having to dress up ahead of time in bio-hazard equipment, gloves, taping everything on, then putting on large rubber suits on top of that, masks, so that the whole process for them, I suppose, is taking an hour, 20 minutes to get ready, they go out on a boat, they spend 20 minutes out there, and they come back and have to be decontaminated. So it's not the most efficient of operations. And for these folks, it's, it's tough going. We've asked the Navy to help us out, as they have in the past. They now have spent two specialists that we worked with in the Dominican Republic. And they're here, and we'll be meeting with them after this conference. They're going to help us, No. 1, with trying to identify through a pinger that's on each of the recorders and they hopefully will be able to pick up with sonar, and then we're also going to take them around the site and hopefully they'll have equipment that can give us a better feel for the spread of the accident and the wreckage and how we might best approach the recovery.
MARGARET WARNER: We get the latest now from the crash site from National Public Radio reporter Derek Reveron. Derek, thanks for joining us. What is the latest? What can you tell us about what's been found and recovered?
DEREK REVERON, National Public Radio: (Dade County, FL) Well, the latest is that they found the flight data recorder, which, as you know, is crucial to investigating the cause of the accident. Earlier yesterday they had recorded that they were finding sections of the tail and had hoped to find the flight recorder in the area where they found the sections of the tail and, indeed, they've done that so far.
MARGARET WARNER: And we just heard Mr. Francis say that they'd been--they brought in these Navy teams to help them try to, one, find the two recorders and also to outline the scope of how broad this area is. Do you know how much else the Navy divers have been able to help them with?
DEREK REVERON: Well, what the Navy divers are trying to do is to try to--try to find out exactly how big the area is. So far, the estimates are like a hundred yards by two to three hundred yards, but more than that, the Navy people using a sonar want to try to find out exactly where the wreckage parts are, and the location of the wreckage parts are key to investigators trying to set up a plan to move in heavy equipment to dredge out these heavy parts. There are several things under consideration, including setting up pontoon bridges, some sort of floating deck out in the water to hold cranes, and dredging, dredging up a section of the Everglades to lower the water so that the parts are more accessible. So the Navy, their in put is very key in determining which approach investigators will use.
MARGARET WARNER: So what you're saying is that until they know the scope, they can't decide on any of those one approaches?
DEREK REVERON: Indeed, indeed, and investigators hope to know the exact scope pretty soon. There's going to be a briefing tonight at 8 o'clock and at that briefing we expect to get more on exactly which approach they may use.
MARGARET WARNER: Now how about recovering the parts of bodies of these victims? How much progress have they made in that regard?
DEREK REVERON: Well, they're recovering parts of bodies, very small parts of bodies. The latest is that they've recovered more than three body bags full of human remains, and they say that the largest human, piece of human remain they've discovered so far is a knee.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how do the investigators explain the fact that this huge plane goes down and almost everything, I gather, just disappeared? I mean, there was nothing to be seen by the human eye, even though this water is only four or five feet deep. How do they explain that?
DEREK REVERON: The angle. The plane drove--dove straight down at an amazing speed and just disintegrated upon impact, and as soon as the plane disintegrated, all the parts sank into the swamp.
MARGARET WARNER: Have they found anything yet, other than, of course, we just mentioned the recorder, which I guess is going to be analyzed, but have they found anything yet that helps them understand the cause of this crash?
DEREK REVERON: If they have, they haven't revealed it so far. There were reports that they discovered a large chunk of the plane's fuselage, but according to Robert Francis, the National Transportation Safety Board person, the largest chunk they've discovered is eight feet long, and they're not saying exactly what part of the plane it came from.
MARGARET WARNER: And what are the investigators saying about the likelihood of ever getting to the bottom of this if, as you say, the plane was virtually pulverized in many respects?
DEREK REVERON: Well, with the black box, they have a very good chance of getting to the bottom of it now. I mean, that's the key. This particular black box, I believe, recorded 11 different parameters of the airplane's functions, you know, speed, altitude, et cetera. So that's very, very valuable information.
MARGARET WARNER: Even though I gather that's a very old-fashioned black box. Modern ones record hundreds of different kinds of data.
DEREK REVERON: Yes, yes, it is. It is an old-fashioned one.
MARGARET WARNER: And how long are they--do they think that the human remains that are there will remain there and not be totally decomposed, given what I gather are very humid and wet conditions?
DEREK REVERON: Well, they are very worried about decomposition, which, you know, has begun already, and, uh, they're sort of being very vague about the window they have to recover complete remains.
MARGARET WARNER: And now are investigators talking yet to reporters about any theories they have about the cause based on the fact that say there was smoke in the cockpit, or, as you said, there was this very sharp angle of descent?
DEREK REVERON: The investigators have gone out of their way not to discuss any particular theories of what may have caused the crash. They've been very, very mum on that. And they will be for quite some time.
MARGARET WARNER: And have they started interviewing people yet, for instance, eyewitnesses, people in the control tower?
DEREK REVERON: They have been interviewing people. They've been interviewing eyewitnesses. They say that some of the eyewitnesses confirmed many of the facts that the NTSB has uncovered so far, and they say that some of the eyewitnesses are--have been giving false information or inaccurate information.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Derek, that's all the time we have. Thank you very much for being with us.
DEREK REVERON: Thanks.