ATLANTA (AP) - ValuJet has told federal investigators it has evidence that a contractor deliberately mislabeled a shipment of oxygen canisters that are suspected of causing a crash in the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people.
ValuJet claimed its maintenance contractor, SabreTech, was anxious to pass an inspection by a potential client, Continental Airlines, and mislabeled five boxes of hazardous oxygen canisters to get them off the shop floor in Miami. The canisters wound up as cargo on ValuJet Flight 592, a DC-9 which crashed May 11, 1996, killing all aboard.
"SabreTech personnel knew that the oxygen generators haphazardly stored on the shop floor would cause SabreTech to flunk the ... inspection," said the statement released today by Atlanta-based ValuJet, which cited government interviews with SabreTech employees in Miami. "They had to get rid of the boxes of generators."
ValuJet asked the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman to investigate before the panel releases its findings on the crash next week. ValuJet said it provided the material earlier this month to the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Miami.
A call for comment from the NTSB was not immediately returned this afternoon.
SabreTech's attorney, Kenneth P. Quinn of Washington, D.C., called ValuJet's new charges preposterous and said federal investigators found that ValuJet had knowingly carried hazardous materials at least six times in 1996.
"I think this is more of the hysterical rantings of an airline that is about to be cited by the NTSB for serious shortcomings that contributed to the crash," Quinn said today. "I think it's another effort by ValuJet to put up a smokescreen to their own ineptitude."
NTSB investigators looking into the cause of the crash have focused on the 150 oxygen canisters that were carried in the cargo hold of the plane. The canisters are believed to have ignited or fueled a fire that brought down plane.
The NTSB is scheduled to meet Tuesday to release preliminary findings in its investigation.
To support its allegation, ValuJet released excerpts of interviews by an FAA investigator with a SabreTech employee, Andrew Salas, and his supervisor, Bill Giral.
Salas said he was told to get the boxes off the floor and asked Giral if he should ship them to Atlanta. Giral told the investigator that when he found out they went on a ValuJet passenger flight, he "could not believe it," according to the excerpts.
ValuJet also claims Salas has made contradictory statements about how the boxes were marked. ValuJet claims the canisters were deliberately put into unmarked boxes so ValuJet would not object to shipping them.
ValuJet and Phoenix-based SabreTech have both denied blame for the crash. SabreTech is a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Sabreliner Corp.
"We believe it's important for the safety board to review this new evidence," said Gregg Kenyon, a ValuJet spokesman. "This is information that has yet to be thoroughly investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board."