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$2.25-million fine in ValuJet crash

Federal regulators are fining a maintenance contractor $2.25-million for improperly handling oxygen canisters blamed for a fire aboard the ValuJet plane that crashed in the Everglades in 1996.

The fine, announced Thursday against SabreTech, is the largest the Federal Aviation Administration has assessed for hazardous materials violations. The company, which called the FAA's action "neither necessary nor justified," said it planned to dispute the proposed civil penalty.

The shipment of canisters, used to supply air to passengers during emergencies when oxygen masks drop down, was illegally put on ValuJet Flight 592 for a May 11, 1996, trip from Miami to Atlanta. Investigators said one or more of the oxygen generators triggered during the flight and caused a fire in the cargo compartment. The plane crashed as it tried to return to Miami International Airport, killing all 110 people aboard.

SabreTech, which is based in Phoenix, was cited for knowingly offering ValuJet a shipment of five boxes containing about 125 unexpended oxygen generators and 10 spent generators for transport on a passenger flight, the FAA said. When activated, the generators are capable of creating temperatures of up to 500 degrees, which can cause combustion of nearby materials.

The company questioned why it was being singled out for blame when the National Transportation Safety Board faulted all parties in the crash, including ValuJet and the FAA.

The board cited the FAA "for its own neglect of the known dangers posed by hazardous materials, its failure to mandate smoke-detection and fire-suppression systems and its inadequate oversight of ValuJet," SabreTech said in a statement.

Kenneth Quinn, counsel for SabreTech, said that SabreTech employees did not load the canisters on the plane and that it is unconscionable that the FAA has not fined ValuJet.

"SabreTech long ago applied the painful lessons learned from this tragedy to prevent a reoccurrence," Quinn said.

"We intend to vigorously dispute the allegations. The FAA's interpretation of the hazardous materials regulations is just plain wrong."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group, supported the proposed fine against SabreTech, but said ValuJet was ultimately responsible.

"The passenger who has the ticket doesn't know who SabreTech is. It really falls on the airline to make sure the airplanes are maintained properly and that materials are not improperly getting on an airline," Stempler said.

The FAA cited SabreTech for "knowingly failing to package, mark, label, identify or certify the shipment of oxygen generators in compliance with the Department of Transportation's hazardous materials regulations."

The FAA found that SabreTech failed to put safety caps on the generators to keep them from activating and did not put a "cargo-only" label on the shipment to indicate they should not be loaded onto passenger flights.

The FAA also said company employees were not properly trained in handling hazardous materials.

SabreTech, a subsidiary of Sabreliner Corp. of St. Louis, has 30 days to reply to the proposed fine.