MIAMI - Passengers screamed "Fire! Fire! Fire!" and a flight attendant warned, "We can't get oxygen back there" during the final terrifying moments before ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard.
The chilling eight-minute tape from the cockpit voice recorder ends with the cockpit and cabin falling silent, leaving the sound of rushing air, perhaps from a cockpit window that had been opened to let the smoke out.
A transcript of the recording was released Monday as a hearing opened on the mistakes that led to the May 11 crash. Federal investigators believe that 144 oxygen-generating canisters carried in the DC-9's cargo hold either ignited or fueled a fire.
Six minutes after takeoff from Miami International Airport, the pilot can be heard telling the co-pilot: "We got some electrical problems. ... We're losing everything."
A few seconds later, the voice recorder picked up screams of passengers in the cabin, including several women shouting, "Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!"
Over the next 51 seconds, shouts were heard from the cabin twice more and a flight attendant said only, "Completely on fire" before the cabin fell silent. The last recorded voice from the plane was that of a crew member telling the tower, "We need the, uh, closest airport available."
The plane crashed 2 minutes, 22 seconds later.
While the flight attendant warned that passengers could not get oxygen, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Greg Feith said there was not enough information to say what may have happened to the oxygen masks that drop down in front of passengers during an emergency.
Relatives of the victims hope the hearing will tell them why their loved ones died.
"I dreaded coming here, but this is something that I have to do in order to have closure," said Gwendolyn Marks, a nurse whose 23-year-old son died in the crash. "It may be painful, but it was my child and I want to hear what was going through his mind, what was going on in those last minutes."
Investigators did not release the recording itself out of concern for the feelings of family members. That decision upset Richard Kessler, an Atlanta lawyer whose wife, Kathleen, was killed.
"I'm going to Washington after this to try to get them to change the law," Mr. Kessler said. He said he wanted to know if one of the voices repeatedly shouting, "Fire" was his wife's.
By the time passenger screams were heard inside the aircraft, the decision had been made to try to return to Miami.
The tower controller, who was listening on a separate circuit and could not hear the commotion in the plane, asked what the problem was and was told, "Smoke in the cockp ... smoke in the cabin." The tower instructed the crew to return.
At the hearing, testimony and court documents focused on alleged blunders by a ValuJet subcontractor, SabreTech Inc., in the handling of the oxygen canisters, which were being flown as cargo. In many planes, the canisters are installed over the seats and supply oxygen to the emergency masks.
A stock clerk didn't know what oxygen generators were but weighed five boxes of them and labeled them for shipment to ValuJet's headquarters in Atlanta, the documents said.
Shipping caps are supposed to be installed on the canisters to prevent them from activating by accident, but none were requested by SabreTech mechanics, the documents showed.
SabreTech President Steven Townes defended his company's work, saying mechanics believed they had disabled the triggering mechanisms of the canisters before they were packed.
But Mr. Townes acknowledged that federal investigators uncovered many flaws in how SabreTech handled the canisters. The probe found sloppy paperwork and employees who failed to follow federal procedures for handling the devices.
"In the last six months there's been an abundance of lessons learned," Mr. Townes said.
The Federal Aviation Administration last week accepted a recommendation for fire detectors and extinguishers in cargo compartments of 2,800 older aircraft. The FAA rejected a similar plan in 1993, primarily because of the estimated $350 million cost.
This week's hearing also will examine the handling of hazardous cargo, aircraft maintenance by outsiders and the supervision of start-up airlines, like ValuJet.
Maria Rivera said accounts of her mother's final moments aboard the plane were painful. Holding a picture of her mother, Cecelia Cabrera, she referred to the passengers' screams.
"I imagined it was my mother," she said. "I didn't think of anything else. I just cried and cried and cried."
Transcript released by the National Transportation Safety Board of ValuJet Flight 592 cockpit recordings. ("Critter" refers to ValuJet's smiling-airplane logo):
2:10:02 (Sound of click.)
2:10:03 (Sound of chirp heard on cockpit area microphone channel with simultaneous beep on public address channel.)
2:10:07 Pilot: What was that?
2:10:08 Co-pilot: I don't know.
2:10:15 Pilot: We got some electrical problems.
2:10:17 Co-pilot: Yeah. That battery charger's kickin' in. Ooh, we gotta.
2:10:20 Pilot: We're losing everything.
2:10:21 Tower: Critter five-nine-two, contact Miami center on one-thirty-two-forty-five, so long.
2:10:22 Pilot: We need, we need to go back to Miami.
2:10:23 (Sounds of shouting from passenger cabin.)
2:10:25 Female voices in cabin: Fire, fire, fire, fire.
2:10:27 Male voice: We're on fire. We're on fire.
2:10:28 (Sounds of tone similar to landing gear warning horn for three seconds.)
2:10:29 Tower: Critter five-ninety-two contact Miami center, one-thirty-two-forty-five.
2:10:30 Pilot: (Unintelligible) to Miami.
2:10:32 Co-pilot to tower: Uh, five-ninety-two needs immediate return to Miami.
2:10:35 Tower: Critter five-ninety-two, uh, roger, turn left heading two-seven-zero. Descend and maintain seven-thousand.
2:10:36 (Sounds of shouting from passenger cabin subside.)
2:10:39 Co-pilot to tower: Two-seven-zero, seven-thousand, five-ninety-two.
2:10:41 Tower: What kind of problem are you havin'?
2:10:42 (Sound of horn)
2:10:44 Pilot: Fire.
2:10:46 Co-pilot to tower: Uh, smoke in the cockp ... smoke in the cabin.
2:10:47 Tower: Roger.
2:10:49 Pilot: What altitude?
2:10:49 Co-pilot: Seven-thousand.
2:10:52 (Sound similar to cockpit door moving.)
2:10:57 (Sound of six chimes similar to cabin service interphone.)
2:10:58 Flight attendant: OK. We need oxygen. We can't get oxygen back there.
2:11:00 (Sound similar to microphone being keyed only on interphone channel.)
2:11:02 Flight attendant: (Unintelligible) is there a (unintelligible) way we could test them? (Sound of clearing her throat.)
2:11:07 Tower: Critter five-ninety-two, when able to turn left heading two-five-zero. Descend and maintain five-thousand.
2:11:08 (Sound of chimes similar to cabin service interphone.)
2:11:10 (Sounds of shouting from passenger cabin.)
2:11:11 Co-pilot to tower: Two-five-zero seven-thousand.
2:11:12 Flight attendant: Completely on fire.
2:11:14 (Sounds of shouting from passenger cabin subside.)
2:11:19 Co-pilot: Outta nine.
2:11:19 (Sound of intermittent horn.)
2:11:21 (Sound similar to loud rushing air).
2:11:38 Co-pilot to tower: Critter five-ninety-two, we need the, uh, closest airport available ...
2:11:42 Tower: Critter five-ninety-two, they're going to be standing by for you. You can plan ...
2:11:45 (72-second interruption in recording.)
2:12:57 (Sounds of tone similar to power interruption to recorder, loud rushing air, repeating tones similar to recorder self-test signal starts.
2:12:58 Tower: (Unintelligible) contact Miami approach on, correction, you, you keep on my frequency.
2:13:11 (Interruption on recording.)
2:13:15 (Sounds of repeating tones similar to recorder self-test signal starts and continues, rushing air.)
End of recording.
2:14:00 ValuJet Flight 592 crashes into the Everglades.
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