Federal prosecutors have arrested the president of a freight forwarding company in Miami and accused him of trying to ship as passenger baggage 500 pounds of a corrosive pesticide on a passenger jet, with the warning labels covered over with black plastic.
The shipment was discovered when one of the 10 50-pound bags leaked before the plane -- an American Airlines flight to Quito, Ecuador -- left the gate.
Prosecutors said the fumes sickened five passengers, but a spokeswoman for American said that no passengers had been made ill. She said, though, that two baggage handlers were taken to the hospital as a precaution.
Airline officials ordered everyone off the Boeing 757 and substituted a different plane. In flight, the plane's ventilation system would have recirculated the fumes through the passenger cabin.
Two days after the Oct. 1 incident, prosecutors say, they listened in on a telephone call in which Angel Fuentes, the president of Executive Freight Consolidators, tried to arrange shipment of five more 50-pound bags by the same method.
Fuentes was then arrested.
Since a ValuJet DC-9 crashed shortly after takeoff from Miami in May 1996, several federal agencies have been trying to tighten scrutiny over cargo shipments by air. Several airlines have been caught carrying the same cargo that destroyed the ValuJet plane, oxygen generators.
According to Dow Chemical, the powdered product that leaked aboard the American Airlines plane, sodium o-phenylphenate tetrahydrate and sodium hydroxide, can cause severe eye irritation and can injure the cornea, with the possibility of permanent impairment of vision or blindness.
It can also damage the skin and upper respiratory tract.
Wilfredo Hernandez, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, said: "It's a particularly lethal pesticide. It's corrosive, it eats aluminum, and if it's not removed correctly, it continues eating."
He added that his office was looking into the practice of companies sending what is essentially cargo as checked baggage.
According to court papers, the chemical was properly labeled on the manufacturer's bags, but it had been rewrapped in black plastic and sent to a second company, PABS Trading Inc., which gave the bags to a courier.
PABS paid the excess baggage charges to the airline, and the courier was given a $100 discount on his ticket to Ecuador.
Pub Date: 10/12/97