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“Families of Airline Victims Must Fight Fading Attention”

By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall

Millions of dollars, international effort, and anguish surround the search for Malaysia’s Flight 370. When interest fades, Flight 370 may end up like ValuJet Flight 592 – forgotten.

ValuJet offered a convenient no-frills airline frequented by working-class people, students, and others seeking low-cost travel. Then, on May 11, 1996, ValuJet’s Flight 592, a DC-9 flying from Miami International Airport to Atlanta Hartsfield, plunged into the Florida Everglades.

All 110 persons onboard, including two pilots and three flight attendants, were killed. It was a beautiful spring day. Nearly five years before terrorism would become the first question asked when a plane crashed. Worldwide, there has been a major airline disaster every year since the ValuJet crash. Whatever is found, Malaysia’s Flight 370 is now added to that tragic list. But, ValuJet, so rarely mentioned, has faded from public memory.

An explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 less than two months after ValuJet crashed may have overshadowed it. On July 17, a Boeing 747-100 headed to Paris and Rome from New York City exploded off Long Island, N.Y. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 12 minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

All 230 people onboard were killed, including four crew members and 14 flight attendants. There was speculation that Flight 800 suffered a ground-to-air missile attack. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the FBI conducted parallel investigations. The FBI found no evidence of a criminal act.

Finally, after four years, the NTSB ended what was then considered the most extensive, complex, and costly air disaster investigation in American history with a report that the explosion was probably caused by flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank ignited by a short circuit.

The NTSB recovered every possible piece of Flight 800 from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Plane pieces were reconstructed. Experts studied over 1 million pieces brought up from an ocean bottom, 120 feet deep.
Flight 800 investigators say the plane exploded at 13,700 feet and then burst into flames at 9,000 feet.

Autopsies indicated death was instantaneous. One couple on that plane planned to celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary in Paris while another couple was to celebrate their honeymoon. For grieving families of businessmen, students, and tourists, there was painful loss mixed with lingering conspiracy theories.

And so it must have been for families of victims of ValuJet Flight 592. Families grieved and demanded answers. But there were no autopsies. It is said that the plane and its victims disintegrated upon hitting the Florida Everglades. Officials claim that alligators inside the Everglades and access to the site hindered a search for victims.

Like the families of Flight 800, the relatives of ValuJet victims wanted to hear the last tape before the airplane crashed. They wanted to know if their loved ones suffered. Finally, they learned that at 2:10 p.m. the flight crew noted an electrical problem. Then, a flight attendant entered the cockpit and advised the flight crew of a fire.

Passengers were shouting “fire, fire, fire” as recorded by the plane’s cockpit voice recorder when the door opened. The intercom had been disabled and there was no way to inform the pilots of the fire without opening that door. Now, the entire interior of the plane was on fire and filled with smoke.

Captain Candi Kubeck and First Officer Richard Hazen attempted to return to the Miami airport. But, at 2:14 p.m Flight 592 crashed west of Miami in Browns Farm Wildlife Management area in the Everglades. Based on a flight data recorder and radar, ValuJet Flight 592 was traveling at 500 mph when it hit the ground.

NTSB investigation revealed it was human error, not terrorism. ValuJet was a bare-bones airline with a record of problems. The fire onboard Flight 592 was allegedly caused by full chemical oxygen generators that were illegally stowed in the cargo hold without safety caps causing tires beneath them to burn.

In financial straits and eager to put this crash behind it, in November 1997, ValuJet merged with Airways Corporation, parent of AirTran Airways. The merged company kept the name AirTran and ValuJet disappeared.

While a memorial with 110 cement pillars stands off US Highway 41, there is little else in Florida memorializing these victims. Like ValuJet, a public memory of passengers killed on May 11 is slowly disappearing.

For ValuJet Flight 592 and TWA Flight 800, conspiracies linger. But, so does pain. Families know that living without answers makes an airline tragedy worse. Grieving Malaysia Flight 370 families need to know if it was terrorism or human error, if their relatives suffered or died quickly.

But, like ValuJet and TWA Flight 800, those Malaysia Flight 370 families may find themselves still fighting for those final in-flight memories as their tragedy fades from public view.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College, in New York City, is a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Nations, and major legal issues. She is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.” Twitter:@GBrowneMarshall

Gloria Browne-Marshall