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Emergency in the Everglades.

The Recovery of ValuJet Flight 592

Saturday, May 11, 1996, began as many other workdays for ValuJet pilot Candalyn Kubeck and her crew. Flying a McDonnell Douglas DC 9, they left Dallas-Fort Worth Airport at 8:20 a.m. bound for Miami, the first leg of a round trip. After a stop at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, they landed at Miami International Airport. At 2:02 p.m., Miami's air-traffic control center cleared them for takeoff.

Shortly after taking off, as smoke filled the cabin and cockpit, Pilot Kubeck informed controllers that she needed to return to the airport. Minutes later, Flight 592 plummeted into the saw grass, muck, and underlying coral rock of the Florida Everglades. None of the 110 passengers and crew members on board survived. Pilot Kubeck's body was never recovered.

A private citizen in the area immediately notified local authorities that he had witnessed the crash of an airliner. Rescue personnel who helicoptered over the crash site described it as barely recognizable as an aircraft disaster. They could see few discernible aircraft parts and no apparent signs of life.

The desolate crash site, approximately 17 miles northwest of Miami International Airport, fell within the geographical jurisdiction of the Metro-Dade Police and Fire Rescue departments, which became responsible for the search and recovery efforts following this aviation catastrophe. The Metro-Dade Police Department worked in concert with numerous federal, state, and local public and private agencies to accomplish this monumental task.

Initial Response

Immediately following the crash, a flurry of activity ensued. First, both police and fire department personnel established command posts. The primary command post was situated close to a main roadway that intersected a 26-mile levee. The location of the crash, however, required that a second, or forward, command post be established from which all recovery operations would be directed. This location, a 100-by-200-foot area of coral rock approximately 300 yards away from the actual crash, was chosen because the terrain presented no other immediate alternatives. It became the temporary work site for over 120 recovery workers each day.

Some 13 miles from the primary command post, the forward post marked the midpoint of the levee, which was accessible by driving along a very narrow, single-lane, coral-rock roadway. On three separate occasions during the recovery period, the drivers of vehicles traveling to the forward command post lost control of their vehicles and careened into the Everglades. A one-way trip took over an hour from the nearest access point and considerably longer if the trip was made by a vehicle other than a car. Ultimately, helicopters and boats transported personnel and supplies to this command post. This method proved a more timely and safe alternative.

During the initial response, police commanders also established a perimeter at various locations around the site to prevent unauthorized access. A police dive team helicoptered to the site to search for survivors; their only way into the muck was a crater that the jet had made upon impact. Fire department personnel also started preliminary search and support efforts. Simultaneously, Metro-Dade Police Department homicide supervisors, in tandem with employees from the medical examiner's department, outlined their plan for recovering human remains and personal effects, a laborious process that would last for 29 days.

As the last moments of daylight faded away on the day of the crash, a host of federal, state, and local public safety agencies and private sector groups who had responded to the crisis held organizational meetings to discuss their courses of action. Later that night, members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) "Go Team" arrived in Miami from Washington, DC. As the lead investigators, they gathered participating agencies together the next morning to announce their strategy for completing the investigation.

The vice chairman of the NTSB, together with the designated lead investigator, described in detail the process used to investigate aircraft crashes, which includes forming various committees, each with its own independent fact-finding assignment. Of the many committees routinely established in such matters, police administrators and recovery personnel interacted most frequently with representatives from the aircraft systems and structures committee, who reconstructed the aircraft from recovered wreckage. Additional committees included operations, human performance, maintenance records, power plant, and weather, among others.

Integrated Recovery Plan

The time-consuming recovery process, which required the expertise and cooperation of numerous organizations, began with a methodical search of the crash site, an area encompassing several hundred square yards. To accomplish this task, officers from the homicide bureau divided the crash location into four quadrants labeled A through D, respectively. With the 100-foot impact crater at the intersection of the quadrants, a series of wooden poles bearing flags placed along each axis marked the four areas to be searched.

Search team members traveled by air boat from the forward command post to the crash site. Like athletes in a relay race, when one group returned from its search, a second deployed. This repetitive and systematic use of personnel--who walked in line formation physically retrieving remains, belongings, and aircraft parts--ensured that personnel would be in the field conducting searches at all times. The number of individuals involved also allowed for recuperative time, extended shifts, and days off.

Each search group consisted of two teams of 12, with each person tasked with specific responsibilities. Members of each team included:

* Two homicide detectives, who supervised the recovery, packaging, and documentation of all items

* One crime scene technician, who photographed and documented all recovered items

* One medical examiner, who provided on-site review and further documentation of human remains

* One dive supervisor, who coordinated search patterns for the team's six divers

* One safety officer, who scanned the terrain for any hazards, including snakes, alligators, or any other visible environmental dangers.

Search teams comprised officers from Metro-Dade and other police departments, as well as employees from area public safety agencies. All team members had experience in their areas of responsibility, and many came from tactical units.

In addition to their responsibilities as members of the search team, employees from the medical examiner's department performed numerous other duties, including identifying the victims, notifying their next of kin, and passing on their belongings. According to Florida state statutes, employees from this office determine the cause of death in accident cases and perform any autopsies and laboratory examinations deemed necessary in the public interest. To help medical examiner's department staff complete their important mission, Metro-Dade officers provided the necessary supplies and arranged for the delivery and transportation of human remains and personal effects to the medical examiner's department. Ultimately, staff members positively identified 67 individuals from Flight 592.

The Metro-Dade Fire Department played a critical role in the recovery effort. As a nationally recognized Urban Rescue Task Force sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the department has valuable experience with disaster response and a wealth of specialized equipment at its disposal. In addition to providing medical and safety-related support, the fire department furnished and set up an air-conditioned tent system, constructed docks for safe passage for air boats and larger vessels, and acquired and distributed food and water (later facilitated by volunteers, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and private donors).

Air boats provided the only means of access to the crash site. State Wildlife Officers provided 2-seat models, and a private businessman volunteered large, tour-type air boats capable of seating 30 to 40 people. Police teams used these large boats to conduct their primary recovery efforts.

Safety Issues

A variety of safety issues came into play during the recovery effort. The hazardous nature of the site, in terms of aircraft fluids and fuels that saturated a relatively confined area, posed special safety challenges. At the same time, the presence of rapidly decaying human tissue in concert with the bacteria already living in the environment presented significant health hazards.(1) Members of the Field Epidemiology Survey Team from the University of Miami School of Medicine took samples on the surface and in the underlying muck at regular increments following the crash. Their analysis indicated that bacteria of human origin increased in number during the week following the crash due to decomposition of human remains, warm temperatures, and rich organic growth factors. Based on the team's findings, no one could enter the crash site without first donning disposable Tyvex suits, rubber gloves, face masks, and eye protection.

When returning from the field, personnel exited the air boats and moved to a decontamination center. At this makeshift center, fire rescue personnel spray-washed them with a chlorine solution before helping them remove their disposable garments, which workers deposited into biohazardous-trash containers. From here, individuals entered one of two air-conditioned tents to rest and recover. The restrictive nature of the clothing, combined with 85-90 degree heat and humidity made the risk of dehydration very high, and recovery team members were instructed to drink plenty of fluids. Moreover, supervisory personnel strictly monitored the amount of time workers spent physically walking among the saw grass and muck. Radio communication with the recovery relay teams was maintained, and an air boat loaded with medical supplies and personnel stood ready to deal with any medical emergencies that might occur.

Weather, in the form of fast-developing and fast-moving lightning storms, presented a unique challenge. The storms, which arose almost every afternoon, were monitored via regular reports from the National Weather Service and portable lightning meters kept on site. The canvass tents erected to serve as command and supply and food service and relaxation stations could not shield against sudden high winds and lightning from low thunderstorms. Therefore, two passenger buses stationed within the confines of the forward command post area provided safe haven from the storms, which proved extremely problematic during the early part of the recovery effort. In fact, despite 12-14-hour-long days, workers logged a total of only 11.5 hours of actual recovery time in the field during the first three days because of the weather.

State wildlife officers had predicted correctly that animals and reptiles indigenous to the area would flee from the site subsequent to the crash and the spillage of tons of toxic fluids from the aircraft and, therefore, would not pose a threat to recovery personnel. Still, alligators and snakes did approach the command post from an adjacent area of the Everglades unaffected by the crash. Most left the scene after satisfying their curiosity. State wildlife officers removed those that persisted. Insects did not pose a problem due to the use of various repellents and the fact that everyone (with the exception of security officers) left the area before dark.

It became abundantly clear that sanitary conditions at the forward command post could deteriorate rapidly without an efficient plan to address them. On a daily basis, refuse associated with hundreds of disposable meals from breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with at least 1,000 drink containers, had to be removed from the levee command post in a manner similar to the way in which it arrived: by boat, helicopter, or more rarely, by truck. Police trainees regularly removed trash from the site.

Outside contractors performed numerous essential tasks. One firm disposed of hundreds of contaminated disposable garments, gloves, and towels daily. Another supplied and serviced portable lavatory facilities. A third transported gasoline to the site to fuel boats and generators.

Finally, the mental health of the workers at the site represented a concern for all of the agencies involved. Many organizations, including the police department, the fire department, and the Red Cross, provided crisis counselors for anyone who expressed a need.

Managing the Crisis

Police operations subsequent to the initial crisis and assessment stage transitioned to establishing a management system capable of fulfilling a number of critical tasks. Metro-Dade's director appointed an incident commander to manage the police department's entire support operation. Support functions included maintaining security in and around the crash site, providing logistical support (equipment, transportation, and communication), distributing food, and conducting interagency liaison.

The department's homicide bureau established a separate and distinct system to manage the accident scene and recover human remains and personal possessions. Supervisory personnel integrated their mission through close and regular liaison with those of police department support personnel and the many public safety, government, and private sector organizations involved in the overall process.


Operation managers developed a computer database in which they regularly entered information critical to the recovery. Using a laptop computer, they recorded every detail from personnel assignments and daily roll-call announcements to supply acquisition and inventory. As a result of keeping accurate and detailed records beginning with the day of the crash, it became relatively easy to complete an after-action report and to respond quickly and accurately to requests for information. Similarly, the database provided a means for the department to track expenses.

Media Relations

The insatiable desire of the news media to obtain timely and regular information in catastrophes of this type required specialized responses from the agencies involved. Understandably, disasters are newsworthy and generate an inordinate amount of media attention, not only from the local media, but from national and international journalists as well.

Within minutes of the ValuJet crash, journalists mobilized their resources and responded en masse to the primary command post to report the specifics of the crash. Using cellular phones as their principal mode of communication, both journalists and recovery team personnel competed for open cell lines, which were in short supply. To compensate, the fire department supplied a satellite telephone system, which guaranteed open lines and a secure means of communication for all rescue workers.

By the day after the crash, 27 news satellite trucks, as well as a multitude of other vehicles and personnel, were stationed near the operations center.

In addition to media representatives from the NTSB and the fire department, the Metro-Dade Police Department responded to media requests the first week with a 12-person staff, then reduced the number to 3. Although the NTSB held daily press briefings, news organizations directed a multitude of requests for additional information to virtually any available participant in the investigation and recovery effort.

The Metro-Dade Police Department's Media Relations Section was besieged with requests for interviews and live updates. And the number of one-on-one interview requests intensified after the recovery team located and retrieved the aircraft's two black boxes.

Media interest has continued beyond the termination of the recovery efforts. Citing the Freedom of Information Act, journalists continue to request reports, photographs, and videotapes that pertain to the crash, but the department finds its regular media relations staff can adequately meet these requests.

Other Considerations

During long, labor-intensive operations, money may become an important factor. Exactly who is, or should be, responsible for recovery costs for the ValuJet crash has yet to be determined, and the Metro-Dade Police Department has had to assume numerous expenses. By working with government officials and legislators on all levels, as well with insurance company and other private sector executives, police administrators may discover alternate means to finance recovery efforts for major disasters. Until then, departments with limited funds may have to enter into mutual-aid agreements with local jurisdictions to obtain the resources they need.


Public safety agencies have an obligation to protect lives and property and to maintain order. Critical incidents can occur at any time and may take the form of a variety of disasters. They will continue to test the preparedness of police administrators.

The crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Florida Everglades taxed the resources and abilities of the Metro-Dade Police Department and the numerous other agencies that worked tirelessly alongside them. But together they rose to the occasion as they unearthed what little remained of a fallen aircraft and its 110 occupants.


David Taplin and Sherri L. Porcelain, Valudet Flight 592 Air Crash Microbial Risks to Recovery Team Health/Safety Report, May 21, 1996.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Previous Article:Bulletin Reports.
Next Article:Incident Command Systems for Law Enforcement.

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