“This is an extraordinary step,” says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen, who follows legal developments. Criminal charges are almost never brought against companies. “This is clearly an attempt by the authorities to send a strong message that safety rules cannot be taken lightly,” says Cohen. “Apparently this was a horrendous incident that could have been avoided.” SabreTech officials took exception to the criminal actions. They denied any wrongdoing and vowed a vigorous defense. “We are not going to stand idly by and be made a criminal scapegoat for this tragedy,” said an attorney for the company. “This was a horrific accident, not a crime.”
It was one of those horrible incidents that sends chills down the spine. On May 11, 1996, after a cargo fire tore through the passenger cabin of a ValuJet DC-9, the airplane plunged straight down into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard. On Tuesday, Florida prosecutors moved to criminalize the conclusions of air safety investigators: Improperly packaged oxygen canisters ignited the fire that caused the crash. State prosecutors charged the maintenance company, SabreTech, with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, both felonies, because of what they alleged was the unlawful transportation of hazardous waste. A separate federal indictment charged three employees with conspiracy to cover up the problem that led to the accident.