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ValuJet Charges Bring Relief

Richard Kessler Jr. finds only a measure of relief in the landmark charges filed against the company accused of improperly packing the oxygen canisters blamed for the deadly 1996 ValuJet crash.

His wife, Kathleen, was among 110 passengers and crew who died when their DC-9 burst into flames and plunged into the Everglades. Like other relatives of those killed, Kessler has been waiting a long time for the charges.

"The families have just wanted to see the process go forward," he said Tuesday.

The company, SabreTech Inc., was charged with murder and manslaughter by state prosecutors. Three of its employees were indicted on separate federal charges of conspiracy, making false statements and mislabeling and mishandling hazardous material.

Three workers from the airline maintenance company SaberTech are expected to turn themselves in by Thursday to face criminal charges stemming from the 1996 ValuJet crash.

For the mother of ValuJet pilot Candalyn Kubeck of Chandler, the important thing is "they're not getting away with it."

"I've been saying for three years that the crash was more than just an accident, and I'm glad they finally got around to filing charges," Marilyn Chamberlin told The Arizona Republic from her home in Ramona, Calif. "How can you call it an accident when the mechanics lied on their work orders?"

It was believed to be the first time in U.S. aviation history that criminal charges have been filed against a company and maintenance workers after an airplane accident.

If convicted, the company could face fines that may go to the victims' families as restitution, said Don Ungurait, a prosecution spokesman.

"This corporation is not going to be allowed to escape unpunished when it committed crimes and acts that resulted in these many deaths," said Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Miami-Dade County.

SabreTech said prosecutors ignored findings by the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, which spread the blame among SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration for lax oversight.

"We are not going to stand idly by and be made a criminal scapegoat for this tragedy," said Kenneth Quinn, an attorney for SabreTech. "This was a horrific accident, not a crime."

Crash investigators found that SabreTech workers improperly packaged the oxygen generators without their required safety caps and falsely labeled them as empty. ValuJet workers loaded them into the cargo hold for transportation at a time when the airline was not authorized to haul such hazardous cargo.

The generators, about the size of a Thermos bottle, are used in compartments above passengers' heads. They contain chemicals that, when mixed in emergencies, produce about 15 minutes worth of oxygen.

Investigators said the generators ignited, causing the fire that tore through the floor of the passenger cabin shortlafter takeoff on the Miami-to-Atlanta flight on May 11, 1996. All aboard died.

The federal indictment said mechanics Eugene Florence and Mauro Valenzuela signed off on FAA-approved work orders, and falsely indicated they had fastened the required safety caps on the canisters.

The caps could have prevented the canisters from igniting. The crash led to a ban against transporting oxygen canisters aboard passenger planes.

The indictment also alleges that Daniel Gonzalez, SabreTech's vice president of maintenance and repair work, pressured workers to falsify and prematurely certify the performance and completion of work.

The yellow caps would have cost a total of $9.16, according to testimony obtained during the NTSB investigation. Acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis contends that SabreTech "put corporate profits ahead of public safety."

Federal arrest warrants were issued, and the three men were expected to surrender by Thursday. The men could be sentenced up to 55 years in prison and fined $2.7 million on the conspiracy charges.

The FAA has proposed a record fine of $2.25 million against SabreTech for improperly handling the canisters. The company is challenging the fine.

The FAA grounded Atlanta-based ValuJet after the crash. The airline later merged with the Orlando-based discount carrier AirTran and now flies under the name AirTran.

For Susan Smith, who lost her 24-year-old son Paul Jordan Smith III in the crash, the indictments brought a sense of justice.

"I have always felt it was murder," Smith said Wednesday. "I felt they put them against the wall and put a gun to their heads."

The pilot's father, Hugh Chamberlin of Rancho Sante Fe, Calif., said he would never fully recover from the tragedy but hopes others learn from it. "When people's safety is involved, you don't cut corners," he said.