First Responders, Families Remember 1996 ValuJet Crash

Twenty-five years ago, lives were forever changed -- and the pain of the tragic day remains.

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Tuesday marks 25 years since ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board. 

The plane took off from Miami to Atlanta on May 11, 1996. But about 10 minutes later, it plunged into the Everglades after oxygen canisters ignited a fire in the cargo.

Lives were forever changed and the pain of the tragic day remains.

“It’s a trauma that I think we all carry,” said former Miami-Dade firefighter Willi Alvarez.  

Alvarez vividly remembers the moment first responders halted their work. 

“…They were standing at attention as the families drove by paying their respects,” Alvarez said while fighting back tears. “What I hope to do on this May 11, on the 25th anniversary, was once again have our people come out here and pay our respects for the families.”

Michael Gast and Danny Llano were divers for the Miami-Dade Police Department at the time. 

“It’s depressing. It’s depressing when you realize 110 people were on that airplane and their lives just ended,” Gast told NBC 6. 

Photos provided by Miami-Dade Police show the search to find anything that could be given to the families. 

“My first impression was how sad the whole circumstance was,” Llano said. “The tough things were some of the items. I found a teddy bear and things like that and that made it tough.”

Joyce Rilla Braswell Simonton was on board heading back home to Atlanta. 

Her granddaughter Kristen Grissom remembers the moment her dad got the devastating news on the phone. 

“He was confirming if she indeed was on that particular flight and I remember my dad tossing the phone across the room, and that’s how I knew, as a little 7-year-old, that something bad had happened,” Grissom said. 

“My mom was a wonderful lady,” said Dana Simonton, Joyce’s son.

Dana said he was only able to recover her mother's pocketbook and clothes.

“Lot of strength to deal with,” Dana said. “It’s something different to deal with when you don’t actually have a body.”

Willi Alvarez told NBC 6 he was with the families when first responders paid their respects.

“We actually drove by the area where our personnel had been working,” said Alvarez, while getting emotional. 

It’s a moment Joyce’s son still remembers 25 years later.

“...To see the rescue workers, and the first responders and the way they treated us. That was...that just took it away from us to see how much they actually cared,” he said. 

NBC 6 also reached out to the then-husband of the female captain who was flying the airplane. But he sent a message through a friend saying what happened that day was simply too difficult for him to talk about.

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