SabreTech, the maintenance contractor for the former ValuJet Airlines, says it will "vigorously defend" itself against murder and manslaughter charges brought by Florida state prosecutors. It also faces federal grand jury criminal indictments.

The charges relate to the crash of a ValuJet McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30 in Florida in May 1996. It is believed to be the first time that criminal charges have been filed against a maintenance company in a US airline accident. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had ruled that the ValuJet accident was caused by a fire in the aircraft's cargo compartment. The blaze originated in a box of chemical oxygen generators illegally loaded as cargo. SabreTech, the NTSB report said, had failed to prepare and label the container before delivering it to ValuJet.

Murder indictments against a company are rare in the USA, but the state of Florida has declared: "This crash was preventable. It was a crime." State prosecutors have charged SabreTech with third-degree (unpremeditated) murder and manslaughter.

Separately, a federal grand jury has indicted the company, one of its former vice-presidents and two mechanics, of conspiring to lie to federal regulators, and placing a destructive device on a civil transport. Federal prosecutors say SabreTech and its workers had improperly handled oxygen generators and falsified records, indicating that work had been done according to safety regulations. Penalties include fines and jail.

SabreTech, owned by Sabreliner, is nearly out of business, with losses totalling $37.5 million. Its maintenance business at Miami International was shattered after the crash and has been sold. SabreTech faces a $2.3 million Federal Aviation Administration fine and a civil damage suit filed by AirTran, ValuJet's successor.

SabreTech lawyers contend: "This tragedy resulted from a chain of human errors. No evidence exists of any criminal intent to either violate the law or cause this tragic accident."

Source: Flight International