On The Job - Florida

Luis Fernandez recounts the fatal crash of Valujet Flight 592 and the intense efforts by various agencies to locate survivors.


METRO-DADE FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT Chief Dave Paulison Personnel: 1,340 career firefighters Apparatus: 35 pumpers, 23 TeleSqurts, seven aerials, two tankers, 54 EMS units, 11 battalion units, seven support units (air truck, hazmat, scene support, canteen van, water rescue, heavy cargo, tactical...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
METRO-DADE FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT
Chief Dave Paulison
Personnel: 1,340 career firefighters
Apparatus: 35 pumpers, 23 TeleSqurts, seven aerials, two tankers, 54 EMS units, 11 battalion units, seven support units (air truck, hazmat, scene support, canteen van, water rescue, heavy cargo, tactical rescue)
Population: 1.9 million
Area: 1,868 square miles

"Critter 592...Critter 592..."

The air traffic controller at Miami International Airport frantically repeated the call signs for Valujet Flight 592 but no response came. On Saturday, May 11, 1996, at 2:12 P.M., the hotline rang at the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) station at Miami International Airport. A DC-9 jetliner that had just taken off enroute to Atlanta dropped off the screen about 20 miles west of the airport in what is known as Everglades National Park. It had made its ascent and then disappeared, reported the air traffic controller to the fire station.

3_97_florida1.jpg
Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
An aerial view of the crash site. At the top of the photo is the levee where the forward command post was located.


3_97_florida2.jpg
Photo by Lt. Roman Bas/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Family and friends of the victims of Valujet Flight 592 gather for a memorial service, just 300 yards from the crash site.

Immediately, the watch officer at the airport fire station scrambled all airport units and alerted MDFR's dispatch center. At the same time, a fisherman in a remote section of western Dade County used his cell phone to call 911. He said he saw a huge passenger jet plummet into the mud and disappear.

Within minutes, close to 100 MDFR units responded from all across Dade County toward the crash site. The tower reported that 109 people, including five crew members, were onboard. No one within MDFR initially realized what a comprehensive and lengthy operation the department was about to conduct.

"The fire service has traditionally been called upon to serve the community in various roles," MDFR Fire Chief Dave Paulison said. "This disaster just illustrates the depth and breadth of our capabilities."

MDFR's primary objective was to provide search and rescue operations at the crash site. Once it became clear there were no survivors, the objective was to establish a base of operations and be able to expand as needed. This included safety, medical, decontamination and logistical support.

With the experience gained in responding to disasters in such places as Oklahoma City, Mexico City, the Philippines and in South Florida with Hurricane Andrew, the department was ready with a pre-arranged cache of equipment and resources and, more important, several hundred personnel experienced in disaster operations.

Initial Operations

The first unit on the scene was MDFR Air Rescue 2, a Bell 412 air medical transport helicopter. As it hovered over the scene, disbelief came over those listening to the dispatch frequency.

3_97_florida3.jpg
Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
The media presence was enormous. More than 100 reporters attended daily briefings set up by the department's public information office.


3_97_florida4.jpg
Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Communication officers relay information to the command post.

"We have hundreds of pieces of debris, no large parts are visible and there does not seem to be any survivors at this time," the helicopter pilot said.

In fact, it was hard to believe a DC-9 had crashed here at all. The terrain where the plane had gone down was difficult at best: six- to eight-foot-high razor-sharp sawgrass, four feet of water and between three and five feet of soft mud beneath the water. Typical Everglades.

The crash site was in the far western section of Dade County, and accessibility was a major concern. A dirt road alongside a levee led rescuers to a spot about 300 yards west of the crash site but that took more than an hour by vehicle from the main access road to the south, U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail. The alternatives were helicopter, which took about 10 minutes, or boat up canal L67, which took 30 minutes. The only direct access to the site was by airboat. With such a long distance to cover, it took hours to get even a small complement of supplies and personnel to the crash site.

This content continues onto the next page...