Valujet: Now A Criminal Probe

Did the airline mislead federal investigators?

Federal authorities have begun a criminal probe into the Everglades crash last month of the DC-9 operated by ValuJet Airlines Inc.

The investigation, which ValuJet acknowledges, is in its early stages. Four law enforcement officials and investigators familiar with the probe say that preliminary targets are ValuJet and SabreTech Inc., an aircraft-maintenance company that has acknowledged it mistakenly labeled as "empty" a shipment of oxygen canisters that may have caused the crash. ValuJet says investigators are looking at an array of companies and individuals and says it is confident that neither it nor its employees were involved in criminal wrongdoing. SabreTech says it has nothing to hide. Both companies say they are cooperating with authorities.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida is heading the probe, assisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General. State and local authorities have been briefed and may bring charges as well. Investigators are looking into the possibility that employees of ValuJet, SabreTech, or both may have lied to authorities about their handling of the controversial canisters. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the companies or their employees could be charged with making false statements to the federal government or with negligent homicide, say the sources, who work outside of DOT. It's also possible no criminal charges will be filed.

The criminal probe is independent of a National Transportation Safety Board probe examining the probable cause of the accident. NTSB accident investigators have confirmed that an FBI official informed them his agency may interview some of their sources. The FBI, the DOT's Office of the Inspector General, and U.S. Attorney's Office declined public comment. ValuJet said in a statement that the criminal investigation began several weeks ago. SabreTech said it was not aware of the investigation, but noted that authorities typically consider every option in the wake of a crash involving hazardous waste.

One key source close to the probe says the criminal investigators are looking into at least three questions:

- Did SabreTech, prior to the accident, label the tags accompanying the oxygen canisters "empty" when the company, or its employees, knew the canisters were full? "Patently untrue," says SabreTech attorney Kenneth Quinn.

- Did SabreTech, in an effort to shift the blame to ValuJet after the accident, mislead investigators or alter documents? "Absolutely false," says Quinn.

- Did ValuJet mislead federal investigators to avoid blame for not properly overseeing repair work performed by SabreTech, or to cover up other maintenance-related problems that might have led to the crash? ValuJet denies the allegation.

Salvage workers have stopped sifting for clues in the Everglades muck; now it's the investigators' turn.

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