ValuJet Flight 592 almost made it back to Miami.
The airliner, bound for Atlanta, was 100 miles into its journey when the pilots reported at 2:14 p.m. they had smoke in the cockpit and were turning around.
But 11 minutes after takeoff, the plane with 110 souls aboard slammed into the Everglades about 15 miles northwest of Miami International Airport, gouging a crater in the muck that quickly filled with water, fully submerging all but shards of the aircraft.
Everyone on board died.
It was 20 years ago Wednesday, May 11, 1996.
Daniel Muelhaupt, a private pilot, was flying toward Naples and witnessed the crash.
"It shot like a bullet into the ground," Muelhaupt told CNN. "When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up. The water went up about 100 feet. It was terrible. The wreckage was like if you take your garbage and just throw it on the ground, it looked like that."
Rick DeLisle, a student pilot who was flying with Muelhaupt, said, "There was nothing in the sense of fire. It was almost like what I would call a mushroom cloud. It went up 100 feet."
The crash was quickly attributed to a fire in the cargo hold. A yearlong investigation spread blame among the federal government, the airline and a maintenance contractor.
The National Transportation Safety Board said SabreTech, a maintenance contractor in Miami, made a series of blunders that allowed 144 oxygen generators to end up on the DC-9. The generators fueled the fire.
The NTSB also blamed ValuJet for failing to keep a close eye on SabreTech and blamed the FAA for refusing to require smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in airplane cargo compartments.
"The ValuJet accident resulted from failures up and down the line — from government regulators, from executives in the boardroom to workers on the shop floor," said NTSB chairman Jim Hall.
The crash eventually led to the installation of smoke detectors and firefighting equipment throughout the nation's commercial air fleet.
And in July 1997, ValuJet acquired AirTran Airways, shedding the name that had become synonymous with tragedy.
Atlanta businessman Terry Huckabee was scheduled to take Flight 592 but missed it.
"I lost a dollar in the vending machine, and I said, 'I'm having a bad day. I missed my flight. I lost a dollar in the vending machine,' " he recalled at the time. "They said, 'No, you're the luckiest man alive ...' "