ValuJet 592 lifted off the runway at Miami International Airport just after 2 o’clock the afternoon of May 11, 1996, a warm Spring day, the day before Mother’s Day. Six minutes in the air, there was a loud clap. Smoke began pouring into the passenger cabin. Then flames. “Fire! Fire!” people screamed. More than two miles over the earth, the plane was completely engulfed, descending in a fiery globe, and exploded in the Florida Everglades. No one survived.
NTSB investigators learned quickly that the fire had begun somewhere inside the enclosed cargo section. Yet, this should have been the safest place for fire to break out. With no Oxygen in the compartment, any fire would have quickly burned itself out.
What went wrong in ValuJet’s cargo section began with mechanic Mauro Valenzuela, a member of the ground crew. Before takeoff, Valenzuela had loaded expired chemical Oxygen generators into the aircraft. Valenzuela loaded the volatile canisters without safety caps over the firing pins, dangerously exposed to sudden, accidental activation. Thus loaded, he left them stacked in a large cardboard box, then covered his tracks by describing the canisters as empty on the flight records. When the aircraft hit bumps on the runway on takeoff, at least one of the canisters became active, spewing out Oxygen and heat-generating chemicals to ignite everything in the cargo bay, including a spare jet wheel nearby that blew up in the hold. A total of 109 people died, including San Diego Chargers football player Rodney Culver, former University of Miami football player Robert Woods, and musician Walter Hyatt.
Valenzuela was arraigned in 1997 by a federal grand jury, charged with conspiracy and making false statements. But he failed to appear in court to answer the charges. A Chilean native, he fled the U.S. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Because the used canisters contained Barium Oxide and Asbestos fibers, they were considered HAZMAT waste. That made Valenzuela guilty of yet another crime: Illegal transport of hazardous containers. For this, he was deemed a public enemy, one of its Most Wanted Fugitives. Valujet was never authorized to carry hazardous cargo.
Now, Mauro Valenzuela is one of 23 fugitives from justice on a new EPA website launched this past December, EPA’s Most Wanted.
Those featured on the website are accused of crimes against the environment, include “illegal smuggling” (Mahmoud Almchie, who had 105 cylinders of ozone-depleting materials when he was arrested); “illegally disposing of hazardous waste” and “illegally discharging acidic chemical wastes into a sewer system” (Larkin Baggett, who owned a waste disposal service in Utah); “aiding and abetting false entries into an Oil Record Book” (Norwegian Cruise Line chief engineer Peter Solemdal, who hid the illegal dumping of waste oil off the cruise ship from Coast Guard inspectors); “Illegal discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States ” (Robert Fred Smith, who dumped chemicals classified as pollutants into public waters); money laundering; and making false statements.
The website is working.
Two EPA fugitives were apprehended after the website went up. More are expected. The website includes photos of the accused, summaries of their alleged environmental crimes, and details about fugitives last known whereabouts. Captured fugitives are included on the EPA website.