Valujet crash blamed on oxygen shipment

Washington - The unauthorised transport of oxygen generators in the hold was given yesterday as the primary cause of the crash of Valujet flight 592 in the Florida Everglades last May, writes Mary Dejevsky.

The accident, which is remembered for the difficulties of the salvage operation in alligator-infested swamps, killed 110 people and prompted questions about the proliferation of small, cut-price airline companies in the wake of deregulation in the United States.

At a day-long meeting yesterday, the US transport safety watchdog, the National Transportation Safety Board, heard evidence from the specialists who conducted the official investigation into the crash. This is the last stage of the investigation, before the board presents its final report in six to eight weeks' time.

Although the inquiry had been expected to focus on shortcomings in Valujet's operating and maintenance standards, the emphasis yesterday rapidly shifted to the regulations set and enforced by the US Federal Aviation Authority. NTSB officials said, in particular, that they had advocated stricter precautions against fire, including improved insulation of the particular cargo area of the Valujet DC-9 where the fire is believed to have originated, ever since a fire was found to have caused the fatal crash of a Saudi airliner in 1980.

They said their call had been renewed in 1988 after a non- fatal American Airlines crash, but that the FAA had turned down the recommendation "on cost-benefit grounds". Other investigators questioned FAA regulations that allow planes to operate without the cabin-cockpit intercom working (a cabin steward may have allowed smoke into the Valujet cockpit), and stipulate a flight crew of two, rather than three. This, they said, placed a greater burden on the chief steward - whose only contribution in this case was to shout "Fire, fire!".

Ever since it was suggested that illegally stowed oxygen generators could have caused the Everglades crash, Valujet has insisted that it was unaware of the cargo and blames the loading company for faulty labelling.

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