NBCMiami photographer Anne Peay was having difficulty finding the crash site. She was in an airboat 20 miles west of Miami in the Florida Everglades.
News crews and fire rescue teams were searching for ValuJet Flight 592 on the afternoon of May 11, 1996. The DC-9 had simply disappeared after requesting to return to Miami just moments after take-off. The flight crew had reported smoke in the cabin and in the cockpit.
A pilot of a small plane had seen the jet dive right into the Everglades. He too was baffled. The plane with 105 passengers and 5 crew was simply swallowed up by the “River of Grass.”
Jesse Kennon, who operates Coopertown Airboats, has seen his share of plane crashes in the Everglades. “The crash site looked like any other pond in the Glades. It was quiet, did not look disturbed, yet what was left of a passenger jet was hidden below the surface," said Kennon. "What they hit was about two feet of water, two or so feet of mud and then solid coral rock. The plane imploded then exploded."
Peay never got to the site that day. It was not until late in the day that search and rescue workers realized there was nothing left of the plane and those on board except for fragments.
Radio transmissions and voices captured by the plane's “blackbox” made it clear Flight 592 had suffered a massive fire, and as the story of the ill-fated flight unfolded it was clear that all aboard were victims of a series of mistakes that started well before the ValuJet flight took off.
In short, a ValuJet maintenance subcontractor needed to clear their facility of what they thought were “expended” oxygen generators. The devices are installed above every passenger seat. In case of an emergency the generators produce oxygen for the masks that drop from the overhead baggage racks. The process involves a chemical reaction, which produces searing heat.
The workers, employed by Sabertech, boxed up the oxygen generators, did not properly cap them and certified that they were properly capped and were empty. Those generators placed in several cardboard boxes where placed in the cargo bay of Flight 592. The boxes rested on top of several airplane tires. Six minutes into the flight, at least one of the oxygen generators ignited, which in turn caused the cardboxes to burn and provided the flame source to catch the tires on fire.
The smoking fire broke into the cabin, filling the DC-9 with smoke and flames. The heat eventually burned through the airplane's control cables with no ability to fly and, choking on smoke, the pilots could not control the stricken jet.
The ValuJet story played out for months. A heartbreaking story of family losses juxtaposed with a web of a lack of oversight, error compounding error. A story of tumbling dominoes led to the crash.
Fifteen years later the stark memorial stands on the side of the Tamiami Trail, a series of descending columns that, in the shape of an arrow, point northeasterly towards the crash site 8 miles away.
The legacy of the ValuJet crash is indeed vast. Lawyer Mike Eidson, who represented two families that lost loved ones is quick to note, “ We have not had an accident like this fire in cargo holds since this happened."
That’s because in the wake of the crash, the FAA has tightened oversight of maintenance companies and slapped strict regulations on what could be shipped in airline cargo holds. In addition the FAA quadrupled the inspectors who check out cargo shipments on passenger jets.
Follow Hank Tester on Twitter at @wtvjreporter.