In 1996, a Douglas DC-9 aircraft operated by ValuJet Airlines took off from Miami International Airport bound for Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Georgia. Only eight minutes later, a fire that had started during take-off, started to spread throughout the cargo hold, eventually engulfing the cabin and cockpit, which caused the electrical systems to fail. When Captain Candi Kubeck said: “We need to go back to Miami”, the crew knew that this was the turning point of life or death. While the pilots were overwhelmed by the perilous situation, the smoke gradually started to take over them while the DC-9 was in a nose dive. At this point, the crew were both unconcious. Seconds later it crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew on board.
The original fire had been started by a chemical oxygen generator which had been illegally packaged in the cargo hold by the ValuJet’s maintenance operator, SabreTech. During takeoff, a bump on the runway set off one of the packages, creating a fire. Unfortunately, the oxygen did nothing but feed the fire as it spreads. Although the FAA took measures to limit the spread of fire on aircraft, it did not protect passenger aircraft cargo compartments. After this incident, the FAA responded by adding smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers in the cargo hold of all commercial airliners. There were also rules that prohibited large amounts of hazardous cargo such as lithium batteries or full oxygen tanks. Aircraft cargo holds are now airtight with carbon dioxide to stop potential fires.
A similar incident happened just thirteen years earlier when a fire broke out on an Air Canada Douglas DC-9, however this time the aircraft was able to land. The fire started behind the aircraft’s lavatory which burned the decoration panels that gave out toxic smoke. Although the NTSB stated that the fire started behind the lavatory, many believe that a lit cigarette caused a spark in the lavatory bin.
While Captain Donald Cameron made a mayday call to air traffic controllers, the cabin crew and the first officer attempted fighting the fire that quickly started enveloping the entire aircraft in smoke. Finally, the aircraft landed while flames were spreading to the exterior of the aircraft. Sadly, only half of the forty six passengers on board survived and sixteen of the survivors sustained severe burns and injuries.
Incidents like these are very rare and almost never happen nowadays. Since 9/11, safety on aircraft has changed a lot, and flying was never safer than today.