An airliner carrying 109 people crashed "like a bullet into the ground" Saturday in the Florida Everglades after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit and attempted to return to Miami International Airport.
There was no sign of survivors. Rescue efforts in the waist-high swamp were hampered by aviation fuel covering the crash site and concerns about alligators and snakes.There were few recognizable parts of the DC-9 operated by ValuJet Airlines Inc., a young airline that has had several recent runway accidents and is being inspected by the FAA. Rescue crews found pieces of the plane measuring up to 6 feet.
Some rescuers had reported seeing bodies. But a rescuer who returned from the site later said he had seen none. Workers had called off their search late Saturday night and planned to resume at daybreak today. Earlier, staff from the county medical examiner's office used infrared devices to look for bodies.
"I felt the most emotional when I saw a family album floating on the water and it was a mother and child," said fire-rescue Lt. Chris Aguirre, one of the first at the scene. He said he also saw baby clothes and a floating seat from the DC-9.
Aerial video shots showed what appeared to be debris spread over a region of the Everglades, an area of desolate, swampy grasslands stretching across much of southern Florida.
Private pilot Daniel Muelhaupt was flying nearby when he saw the plane go down.
"The way it went into the ground, the way it crashed, it shot like a bullet into the ground," he told CNN. "When it hit the ground, the water and dirt flew up. The wreckage was like if you take your garbage and just throw it on the ground, it looked like that."
The jetliner, en route to Atlanta, was carrying 104 passengers and a crew of five, said airline president Lewis Jordan. The plane was at about 10,500 feet and about 100 miles west of Miami when the pilot reported the smoke. The jet was in the air about eight minutes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
The pilot tried to fly back to Miami and went down about 20 miles northwest of the airport. The weather was sunny with a few clouds.
Flight 592 indicated at 2:15 p.m. that it would return to the airport, Jordan said at a news conference from the airline's Atlanta headquarters. Miami traffic control indicated that the plane went off radar at 2:25 p.m.
The jet was about 25 years old and was last inspected on Tuesday, Jordan said.
"There's no concern that the engine is in any way suspected at this time," he said. He said there were no tapes available yet of the cockpit's conversation with the tower.
Muelhaupt said the plane was pointing down about 75 degrees and that he first thought it was a small plane doing maneuvers. He said he radioed authorities and circled until they reached the scene.
Chris Osceola, who was bass fishing nearby, also saw the plane dive into the water.
"I said, `It's gonna crash! It's gonna crash!' And then, boom!" he told the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale.
President Clinton issued a statement from the White House offering his condolences.
"All Americans join Hillary and me in offering our hopes and prayers to the families and friends of those aboard the ValuJet that has so tragically crashed near the Miami airport. Although we fear the worst, we are hoping and praying for their safety," Clinton said.
Clinton asked Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson to personally inspect the accident scene.
National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Robert Francis said late Saturday that the task of determining what caused the crash will be made more difficult because of the harsh terrain.
ValuJet quickly escorted relatives in Miami and Atlanta to private areas where they were told news of the crash and offered counseling.
Atlanta businessman Terry Huckabee was scheduled to take Flight 592 but missed it.
"I lost a dollar in the vending machine and I said, `I'm having a bad day,' " Huckabee said. "They said, `No, you're the luckiest man alive. It's lucky you missed your flight.' "
The crash of the ValuJet flight was reminiscent of an Eastern Airlines jumbo jetliner that went down in the Everglades on Dec. 29, 1972, killing 101 of 176 people aboard.
The last major crash of a large plane was Sept. 8, 1994, when a USAir jetliner crashed on approach to Pittsburgh International Airport, killing all 132 on board.
ValuJet, which began operations in October 1993, serves 31 cities in 19 states. The airline has experienced various problems in the past.
In January, a ValuJet DC-9 got stuck in mud at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. The 101 passengers were bused to a terminal.
Also in January, another ValuJet DC-9 with 30 people on board slid into a snowbank after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, closing the airport for nearly three hours. No one was hurt.
A ValuJet DC-9 also skidded off an icy runway at Dulles in January 1994, closing the airport for almost two hours.
The FAA launched about 375 inspections of ValuJet in February, examining "literally every plane, every route," said Anthony J. Broderick, the agency's associate administrator for regulation and certification.
The bottom line: No significant safety deficiencies were found, he said.