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THE CRASH OF VALUJET FLIGHT 592: ONE YEAR LATER // Two men have vastly different views of reborn airline

Published Jul. 6, 2006

As Lewis Jordan strides through the Atlanta airport in his blue ValuJet sweater, people gawk as if he is a rock star.

Jordan, chairman of ValuJet Airlines, used to be just another face in Concourse C. Then, on May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades with 110 passengers and crew aboard, transforming the reserved airline president into an international celebrity.

Most airline presidents run for cover after a crash. They do the requisite morning-after press conference and then retreat to their offices. If there's any more to say about the crash, they do it by press release.

Not Jordan. He did Nightline and Larry King Live and was a four-timer on the Today Show. He was on television so much that people kept calling ValuJet to buy his polo shirts, which had the airline's smiling "Critter" over the heart. Even today, the ValuJet store can barely keep the shirts in stock.

ValuJet had become the most notorious airline in the world. There were stories about rickety airplanes, sloppy maintenance and flights that nearly ran out of fuel. Five weeks after the accident, ValuJet was grounded.

For the past year, Jordan has been on a crusade to rebuild his airline and convince people his flights are safe. As he walks through the Atlanta airport, he boasts about his airline's response to the Federal Aviation Administration and his aggressive new safety program.

"People who have studied this will tell you that the key to safety is a company's culture," Jordan says.

Twenty miles away at the Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, the Rev. Warren Lathem rocks slowly in his leather chair, recalling the worst year of his life.

On his bookshelf is the last photograph ever taken of his son Ray and friend Carlos Gonzalez, while they were in Venezuela building a Methodist church.

A few days after the photo was taken, the two young men flew back to Miami and then boarded ValuJet Flight 592.

"Pray for us'

Lathem was in the church sanctuary preparing to give a Saturday night sermon when a church member walked up to him.

"Wasn't that terrible about that plane that went down in the Everglades?" the parishioner asked.

It took Lathem nearly an hour to get ValuJet to confirm that Ray and Carlos had been on that flight. He then stepped back into the sanctuary and gave the news to the congregation.

"Ray and Carlos were on the ValuJet plane that went down in the Everglades," he told everyone. "Pray for us."

Ray, 20, had always been comfortable at the suburban church. As a boy, he and his brother Jared had snoozed in the pews while Dad preached. After a spate of teenage rebellion, when he grew long hair and followed the Grateful Dead around the country, he decided to become a minister.

He was a creative boy who loved to write poetry and had eclectic taste in music. Ray liked Bob Dylan, jazz, classical and the Grateful Dead-inspired sounds of the band Phish. He had preached his first and only sermon a few months before the crash _ about the prodigal son.

ValuJet was a natural choice for a trip from Miami to Atlanta because the airline was so inexpensive. Its fares could be 80 percent lower than Delta Air Lines.

Lathem had flown ValuJet to Tampa a few weeks before the crash so he could go deep-sea fishing from John's Pass.

"I wasn't frightened on ValuJet," Lathem says. "I assumed if the FAA approved an airline, it was safe to fly."

Leading the crusade

After the crash, people wondered if ValuJet would ever fly again.

The company's name had become synonymous with a horrible tragedy. Critics said the FAA did not want "another ValuJet."

When Jordan talks about the past year, he speaks in the third person, like a spokesman for himself. During the worst of the crisis, he considered walking away from the job. But he decided "I couldn't have lived with Lewis Jordan if I had left."

He still has the no-frills $99 desk from Office Depot that has become a symbol of ValuJet's cost-cutting. But his role now is more spokesman than president.

He has been so busy giving press interviews and dealing with the FAA and Congress that he has relinquished the day-to-day operating responsibilities.

Those duties have been taken over by D. Joseph Corr, a seasoned airline executive who formerly headed Continental and TWA.

That allows Jordan to lead the campaign to restore ValuJet's image.

He has toured the country and made shrewd use of the news media to tell ValuJet's side of the story. He does not dwell on the crash _ he calls it "our tragedy" _ but he is careful to stress that the needs of victim families come first.

He says the airline will honor the crash victims Sunday in private ceremonies, separate from a formal memorial service planned for Miami for families of the victims.

Jordan tries not to show bitterness about how his airline was treated by the FAA and the media, but occasionally the frustration leaks out. He feels ValuJet is held to much tougher standards than other airlines. At one point in a two-hour interview, he refers to his harshest critics as "the ValuJet enemy side."

Jordan still maintains that ValuJet was not to blame for the crash.

"Some mistakes were made at an agency that was FAA-certified," he says, referring to SabreTech, the company that shipped dangerous oxygen generators on the plane. "I don't believe you will find anybody at ValuJet was at fault for that accident."

The National Transportation Safety Board apparently feels differently. Investigators say their report will likely blame ValuJet, SabreTech and the FAA.

The grounding of ValuJet also took a personal financial toll on Jordan.

As the shutdown dragged into its third month, he gave up his paycheck. He and the airline's other founders decided it was wrong to continue drawing a salary.

Jordan's bills mounted. He had large family medical bills, plus the costly living expenses of an airline executive's lifestyle. He already had invested nearly every penny he owned in ValuJet. So when a buyer made an unsolicited offer for his stock, Jordan decided to sell 1-million of his 6.3-million shares for $8.25 per share.

The company's press release made no mention of his financial difficulties. It said Jordan was "diversifying" his holdings.

The timing looked suspicious. The announcement of the stock sale was made four days before hearings on the crash in Miami, when the airline and Jordan were sure to be on the hot seat.

It was purely coincidental, he says.

"There was frankly never going to be a good time," he says. "Any time Lewis Jordan sells stock, somebody might ask why that was."

"He's slick'

Lathem was furious when he heard about the stock sale. "It sounded like the rats were fleeing the sinking ship," he says.

Lathem amassed hundreds of documents on the crash _ reports from the NTSB, memos from the FAA and stories from the news media. Together they told a scary tale about ValuJet and SabreTech.

The documents showed SabreTech had made a string of mistakes that allowed dangerous oxygen generators to be placed in Flight 592's cargo compartment. But Lathem felt the reports also showed that ultimately ValuJet was to blame.

"ValuJet used the most inexpensive maintenance and service it could find with total disregard for the effects on the passengers," he says.

He won't talk in detail about his feelings about Jordan. All Lathem will say is "He's slick, isn't he?"

But Lathem has deep feelings about the airline's responsibility for the crash. He says ValuJet is "corporate scum."

"It is feeding on the financial needs of people who need inexpensive air travel," he says. "I really believe my son would be alive today if it weren't for the greed of ValuJet."

Shortly after the crash, critics said the FAA had been ineffective at policing ValuJet because the agency had a dual mission _ to regulate aviation and promote it. That language was removed so the FAA would be more focused on safety.

Still, Lathem isn't convinced.

"The FAA and the airline industry are in bed together," he says. "I have no confidence in the airline industry any more."

Scolding employees

ValuJet might be the most scrutinized airline in the nation, but Jordan has managed to make the best of it.

Realizing that his biggest problem is ValuJet's reputation, he now boasts about all that ValuJet has done to satisfy the FAA.

The airline is still only half the size it was a year ago, with 25 planes instead of 51. The remaining planes are being stored in the desert. Before they can return to service, they must receive a complete maintenance overhaul and an intensive FAA inspection.

ValuJet's pilot training now puts more emphasis on standardization, so pilots will respond to situations the same way. In response to questions about whether Flight 592's pilots put on their oxygen masks and smoke goggles, the airline has a new pouch for the goggles that is easier to open.

There are now buckets beside every plane so employees have a handy place to toss stray bolts or screws they find on the ground. Even small objects can cause serious damage if they get sucked into a jet engine.

The company has beefed up its staff to oversee contract maintenance companies and has a much larger safety office. Safety employees hand out cards when they see something dangerous.

"I just noticed you doing something that could have caused an accident or incident," the cards say.

The cards are like a chain-letter scolding. Employees who get one are told to pass it on when they see someone else jeopardizing safety. Another set of cards congratulates workers who are seen doing something good. "Thank you for making ValuJet a safer place to work," the cards say.

Walking through the hallways beneath Concourse C, Jordan points to the many signs that now cover the walls. The company always had signs reminding employees about safety, but there are more since the crash and they are especially prominent.

A sign on a door near the pilot/flight attendant lounge shouts "BE ALERT!! EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED."

Another sign sign shows a parent and child playing together. "Precious moments to be shared," it says. "Work carefully so you can be there to enjoy them."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.