25 years ago this week, on May 11, 1996, one of the most tragic and widely publicized hazmat transportation incidents in American history occurred. On that morning, ValuJet flight 592 taxied into position on the runway at Miami International Airport, scheduled to depart for Atlanta.
Unknown to the crew of the airplane, a shipment of expired and improperly packed oxygen generators had been loaded into the hold of the plane minutes earlier by a maintenance contractor. Oxygen generators use an exothermic chemical reaction to yield breathable oxygen. The reaction creates heat as well, and because oxygen is flammable, oxygen generators pose a major fire risk on airplanes.
The ValuJet 592 Tragedy
As fire broke out from a running oxygen generator and spread throughout the cargo hold, ValuJet 592 took off from Miami International. The fire suppression system aboard the ValuJet flight was no match for the blaze, chiefly because the system worked by cutting off oxygen to the cargo hold. Without oxygen, most fires are quickly extinguished. Oxygen generators, however, create their own oxygen, and so the fire grew.
Within minutes the growing fire—fed by the oxygen from the generators and reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit—began burning through control cables. Minutes later, ValuJet 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades nose-first at 500 miles per hour, killing all 110 people on board.
Response to the ValuJet Tragedy
The 1996 crash was a galvanizing moment for regulators and industry. In response to the ValuJet incident and unique fire risk posed by oxygen generators, the US DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) now prohibit oxygen generators from transport on passenger aircraft. [49 CFR 172.101]
To this day, ValuJet 592 stands as a stark reminder of the importance of the hazmat and dangerous goods safety. Professionals in the US take that responsibility seriously: training personnel; choosing the right package; and making sure hazardous materials are classified, named, and labeled properly for transport.
As we mark 25 years since the incident, we remember the 110 victims of ValuJet 592. The tragic loss of life on that day gives us perspective on the importance and gravity of shipping hazardous materials safely, every day.