USA vs. Sabre Tech
By Stephen P. Prentice
Remember ValuJet? The DC9 that went down in the Everglades? The mechanics who worked for Sabre Tech and handled the oxygen generators? They were arrested and charged with criminal conduct. They were found not guilty, but Sabre Tech was found guilty. The conviction was appealed.
It was recently announced by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that the charges and ultimate convictions against the company were not only improper but contrary to the law. Read this as . . . the U.S. Attorney and the trial court Judge made a mistake. You probably missed the small note in the newspapers about this significant reversal of the Sabre Tech conviction. The defense did an excellent job!
A little history
On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet aircraft crashed in the Florida Everglades while attempting to make an emergency return to Miami. All aboard perished. The crash investigation focused on old oxygen generator containers that were in boxes in a baggage compartment for shipment to Atlanta for overhaul. These devices, when installed, supply oxygen to passengers, when needed, by producing it when the canister is activated. Cessna and some others use the same type of canister in their pressurized aircraft for emergency oxygen. These cans are routinely removed for overhaul after 12 years of service. When removed they should have a protective cap installed to prevent their accidental activation and release of oxygen. The trigger mechanism must be secured to prevent its firing. Hardware on the units in this case was improperly secured with tape and the units shipped without the protective caps.
The removed units were wrapped, placed in boxes, delivered to the airport, and put in the forward baggage compartment of Flight 592 for delivery to Atlanta. Shortly after takeoff a fire broke out in the baggage compartment resulting in the accident. Evidence suggested that some unrestrained tires may have crushed the oxygen units and released the gas.
Criminal investigations and charges have been popular since the watershed case of USA vs. Eastern Airlines. Law enforcement has elbowed its way into the investigation of aircraft accidents big time. This is, of course, on top of the FAA, DOT, local agencies, and last but not least the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) charged with the duty of finding the cause of any accident.
In many circles, accidents are seen as opportunities for law enforcement people to advance their careers. This can include U.S. attorneys, some judges, local district attorneys, and others seeking to get their names in the papers. This type of grandstanding by law enforcement has many times resulted in halting meaningful investigation of an accident by NTSB officials. When a witness sees the law coming they will clam up and refuse to give any information. Generally, good advice! Experience has shown that by providing information you may get arrested.
Politics is seen by many as the driving force behind the criminalization of aircraft accidents. There has been talk and work toward granting immunity to mechanics, pilots, and others in the chain of responsibility. Positive steps in this direction have been taken. This, of course, would enhance the NTSB's ability to gather evidence from people who should otherwise be fearful of interrogation by FBI or others. In the Alaska Airlines accident case, mechanics refused to give any information to anyone without immunity. They were right. We should all keep this in mind.
The Sabre Tech case
In July of 1996, a Federal Grand Jury in Florida returned a 24 count criminal indictment against Sabre Tech and the three employees who were the mechanics concerned with the oxygen canister removal and storage. You may recall that this was in addition to the expected FAA enforcement or civil penalty proceedings which were being investigated at the same time.
When criminal and civil proceedings are held simultaneously, as in this case, it becomes clear that accident investigation information has been used to gather information for criminal cases.
Can they exist together in accident investigations?
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