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Fine Levied In ValuJet Crash

A defunct jet repair company was fined $500,000 Tuesday for failing to train its workers to properly handle oxygen generators blamed in the 1996 ValuJet crash that killed 110 people.

The case marked the first time an aviation company was prosecuted in response to a U.S. air disaster. Convictions on eight other counts tying SabreTech Corp. more directly to the crash were thrown out on appeal.

The sentencing brought an end to investigations and prosecutions by federal and state authorities of the crash in the Everglades minutes after takeoff May 11, 1996.

"The risks were spelled out in the most horrible and irrevocable way," said prosecutor Caroline Miller. "The defendant has not acknowledged its criminal responsibility for its actions."

Investigators blamed explosive-tipped oxygen generators that SabreTech improperly packaged as cargo.

In response to the crash, oxygen generators, which provide oxygen when cabins lose pressure, have been banned as cargo on passenger jets. Airlines were required to install equipment to detect and fight cargo fires by last year.

"The case is about aviation safety, although the defendant has repeatedly stated it is not," said Carol Rietz, who lost her son Howard, a University of Miami architecture major, in the crash. "We just can't afford to have anyone relax on hazardous materials."

SabreTech attorney Martin Raskin responded that the company was "deeply sympathetic" to the victims' families.

"The ValuJet crash was an accident, not a crime," he said outside court. "SabreTech died a corporate death from the weight of the accusations."

A federal jury convicted SabreTech on nine of 23 charges. A federal appeals court threw out eight counts of causing the transportation of hazardous materials because federal law at the time did not support the conviction.

The company was originally ordered to pay $2 million in fines and $9 million restitution. With guidance from the appeals court, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King imposed the maximum fine and placed the company on probation for three years on the one remaining charge.

Raskin said the company is unlikely to appeal and noted the company has a negative net worth of $22 million. The judge stuck to his earlier finding that SabreTech is able to pay the fine.

Several employees testified during trial that they had never received training in the handling of hazardous materials even though it was mentioned in a company manual.

SabreTech, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Sabreliner Corp., has been out of business since 1999.

Federal investigators concluded that SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration shared responsibility for the crash. ValuJet now flies under the AirTran name.

In a related prosecution, SabreTech settled state murder charges with a no contest plea to a hazardous material charge and a $500,000 donation by its parent to an airline safety group and a Miami-Dade County charity.

By Catherine Wilson

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