Victims' relatives critical of airline repair company's plea bargain in ValuJet crash

Saturday, December 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ Relatives of passengers killed when a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Everglades five years ago are criticizing a plea bargain in the murder case that lets a defunct airplane repair company off with only a $500,000 donation.

SabreTech pleaded no contest Friday on a hazardous materials charge for improperly boxing, mislabeling and misidentifying oxygen generators delivered to the Miami-Atlanta flight as cargo. Investigators determined the oxygen generators contributed to the fire that brought down the plane.

As part of the plea bargain, St. Louis-based Sabreliner Corp., SabreTech's parent company, made $250,000 donations to the National Air Disaster Alliance and Foundation, an airline safety group, and to the United Way.

In return, prosecutors dropped 220 murder and manslaughter charges the state had filed against SabreTech, the first aviation firm prosecuted over a U.S. airline disaster. SabreTech went out of business two years ago, but Sabreliner remains in operation.

Laura Sawyer, whose grandparents died in the crash, read letters from relatives of victims during Friday's court hearing and described her own bouts with depression.

``The actions of SabreTech have shown that they have little regard for human life,'' she told Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick. ``We all know that corporate greed and trimming safety procedures are what cost our loved ones their lives.''

Prosecutor Gary Winston acknowledged some frustration but said a trial ending in a murder or manslaughter conviction would have been punished by a fine that would never be paid.

``There was little to be gained (by going to trial),'' he said.

A few relatives of victims expressed support for money going to the National Air Disaster Alliance, which lobbies for improved flight safety and security.

``Let the legacy of our loved ones be to prevent such a horrific event from occurring again,'' said Robin Holton, whose brother and sister-in-law were killed.

SabreTech formally acknowledged on Friday that its ``errors and omissions, along with those of others, contributed to the crash.'' But company attorney Martin Raskin said, ``We have maintained from the beginning and we still maintain that no crime was ever committed.''

Federal investigators concluded the generators, an aircraft part tied into masks that drop from overhead compartments to provide oxygen in an emergency, started or aggravated a fire moments after takeoff May 11, 1996. Passengers shouting ``Fire!'' could be heard on the cockpit tape recovered from the crash site.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on SabreTech, ValuJet and the Federal Aviation Administration for failing to give proper oversight. ValuJet now flies under the name AirTran Airways.

SabreTech still faces a possible $500,000 fine when it is resentenced in federal court for a 1999 conviction of willfully failing to train its employees according to federal hazardous materials regulations.

A federal judge had also ordered the company to pay a $2 million fine and $9 million in restitution after it was convicted on eight counts of transporting hazardous materials. But a federal appeals court overturned that conviction Oct. 31, saying the law the company violated was not in place when the crash occurred.