In some ways, Sharon Jarvis Moss was one of the fortunate ones. The remains of her brother Dan, who played several musical instruments, were identified from fingerprints on sheet music she provided after the 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Everglades.
Other family members of the 105 passengers and five crew members never recovered anything, so complete was the DC-9's destruction when it plummeted nosefirst into water, muck and rock after a fierce fire in the cargo hold. All 110 people aboard were killed.
Yet many who will gather Thursday to mark the 10th anniversary of Florida's deadliest air crash take solace in knowing that their loved ones' deaths spurred changes in federal air safety rules and practices that have probably saved lives.
"There are ways we try to overcome evil with good, to make something positive out of our tragedy," said Moss, who lives in Gastonia, N.C., and recently had her brother's remains transferred there. "As a result of that crash, good things did happen."
The airliner went down 11 minutes after takeoff from the Miami airport because of a fire that filled the cabin with smoke and flames. In the cargo hold were 144 oxygen generators - bottle-shaped devices used to feed air to airplane oxygen masks. And at least one of them ignited because their safety caps were not in place, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
ValuJet did not have government authorization to carry such potentially hazardous cargo in the first place. The Federal Aviation Administration was faulted for inadequate oversight of ValuJet and its maintenance contractors.
"What I remember most about this accident is that it was unnecessary. This was completely preventable," said John Goglia, a former NTSB member who led hearings on the ValuJet crash.
Less than two weeks after the disaster, the FAA banned oxygen generators in commercial flight cargo holds. The FAA then mandated fire detection and suppression systems for cargo areas, which resulted in the retrofitting by March 2001 of more than 3,400 aircraft at a cost of $300 million.
George Griner of Benbrook, Texas, who lost his son Mark in the crash, said: "I like to think that Mark was part of helping save a lot of people over a number of years. To me, that's a great contribution."
The FAA also increased its scrutiny of safety practices at startup airlines such as ValuJet, whose faulty maintenance program and lack of FAA oversight were cited as factors in the crash. ValuJet's maintenance contractor at the time, SabreTech, was convicted in state court in 1999 of recklessly supplying the oxygen generators and went out of business.
That prosecution, the first of its kind in the nation, "served notice to the aviation industry that there would be penalties for such negligence," said Gail Dunham, president of the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation, an advocacy group for air passengers and crash victims' families. "This decision was a landmark in promoting aviation safety."
ValuJet, at the time of the crash a growing no-frills airline, was grounded for three months after Flight 592 went down. After trying to restore the flying public's confidence, ValuJet merged in 1997 with AirTran, dropped the ValuJet name and began to recover.
AirTran Airways now operates 600 daily flights to 50 destinations, has a work force of 7,000 people and has one of the newest fleets of fuel-efficient Boeing 717 and 737 airliners. AirTran has posted a profit in each of the past seven years.
"In the 10 years since this tragedy took place, the airline has completely reinvented itself," AirTran said in a statement. "We've changed everything except our commitment to safety, which will always be our top priority at AirTran Airways.
Aviation experts say the ValuJet crash - coupled with the fuel tank explosion over Long Island Sound that destroyed a TWA Boeing 747 on July 16, 1996, killing 230 people - put a much-needed focus on chronic safety problems. Two federal commissions created to investigate those problems resulted in the setting of a national goal to reduce the fatal accident rate by 80 percent over a decade.
The aviation fatality rate is on track for a 73 percent reduction since those twin 1996 disasters, said Stuart Matthews, president and chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation.
"From a commercial standpoint, aviation has never been safer," Matthews said.
In 1996, there were 342 deaths aboard regularly scheduled commercial passenger aircraft involved in accidents, a rate of one passenger fatality for every 1.9 million who boarded planes, according to the NTSB. By 2005, the number of fatalities had dropped to 20, or one for every 42 million passengers.
Many Valujet family members have sought to create something of their own to remember loved ones, from a basketball tournament in North Carolina that raised money to send poor kids to camp, to a Methodist church in Venezuela built in honor of one victim.
On the Net:
National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation: http://www.planesafe.org
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