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The FBI is still searching for a fugitive Mexican mechanic involved in a horrific 1996 Valujet crash
When Valujet Flight 592 ascended for the last time in 1996, it was
supposed to be for a routine, hour-and-a-half-long trip from Miami
International Airport to Atlanta.
Seven minutes after takeoff, however, flight captain Candalyn Kubeck
radioed a troubling message: There had been a strange sound heard on the
plane, and now the pilots were experiencing electrical problems.
“We’re losing everything,” Kubeck said, seconds later. “We need, we need
to go back to Miami.”
In the background were shouts of “fire, fire, fire, fire” and “We’re on
fire! We’re on fire!”
Kubeck and her co-pilot managed to turn the aircraft back toward Miami,
but it was too late. In the cargo hold a devastating blaze had erupted,
filling the cabin and cockpit of the DC-9 with thick smoke and flames that
were hot enough to melt aluminum. The plane careened downward, tilted to
the right, on a final, uncontrolled descent.
At 2:13 p.m. on May 11, 1996 — less than 10 minutes after takeoff —
Valujet Flight 592 slammed into the murky waters of the Florida
Everglades, killing all 110 people on board. The impact was at once
devastating and curious: A witness in a sightseeing plane would later tell
investigators the jet seemed to vanish once it struck the wetlands,
creating a deep crater in the muck and saw grass.
Crash debris haunted investigators for months as they recovered fragments
of both plane and passengers from the “River of Grass.” To this day, no
complete body of any of the passengers has ever been found.
“It just went to pieces,” Jacqueline Fruge, a special agent with the FBI’s
Miami office, said in a statement Thursday.
The devastating crash prefaced the financial demise of one of the
country’s low-cost carriers.
The National Transportation Safety Board spent more than a year working up
an accident report that ruled the crash had been caused primarily by a
contractor’s mishandling of the packaging and shipment of oxygen
generators in the cargo hold.
The oxygen generators had been loaded without the proper safety caps,
causing them to ignite in the cargo hold and trigger the deadly fire, the
Investigators identified three employees of SabreTech, the maintenance
contractor for Valujet at the time, who had a role in mishandling the
oxygen generators, according to the FBI. Two of those employees were
criminally charged but later acquitted.
However, the third SabreTech employee, mechanic Mauro Ociel Valenzuela-
Reyes, fled sometime before his trial in 2000. He had been charged the
year before with making false statements to the Federal Aviation
Administration and the Transportation Department, as well as causing the
transportation of hazardous materials.
Now, more than two decades after one of the deadliest aviation disasters
in Florida history, the FBI is renewing its search for Valenzuela-Reyes,
the last employee wanted in connection with the Valujet crash.
The FBI announced Thursday it was offering a $10,000 reward for
information leading to the capture of Valenzuela-Reyes. The agency also
released age-progressed images of what the mechanic might look like today
at 48 years old.
He is described as a 170-pound Hispanic male with black hair and brown
eyes and stands anywhere from 5-foot-10 to 6 feet tall. FBI investigators
said they suspect Valenzuela-Reyes of living under a false identity in
Chile or elsewhere in South America. He also has ties to Georgia, the
Anyone with information on Valenzuela-Reyes is asked to contact their
local FBI office.
An FBI spokesman did not respond to questions sent by email or grant an
interview request Friday, referring to the statement the agency had
released the day before.
Fruge, who has worked for the FBI for 29 years and has been the primary
agent on the Valujet case since it began, said in the statement that
locating Valenzuela-Reyes would bring “closure” in one of Florida’s
deadliest airline crashes.
“We’ve tried over the years to find him,” Fruge said. “It bothers me. I’ve
lived and breathed it for many, many years.”
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