Friday, June 21, 1996
FAA should talk to crash victim's mom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

She says the words ''body parts'' and looks you straight in the eye. Without flinching. Without tears. But with great strength and courage.

No mother should ever have to say those words. Particularly when she's talking about one of her children.

But Jackie Burnett must. Her 35-year-old son, Joe, died in the ValuJet crash.

Joe Burnett left behind a father, one brother, four sisters and a petite, blond woman he called Mom.

She sits in her boss' office, where she works as a secretary to Montgomery's city manager. Fighting back tears, Jackie Burnett talks about coping and waiting.

''We're still waiting to have a funeral,'' she says. ''But we don't have much hope. The medical examiner told us that the way that plane impacted, many of us will never get anything back.''

She copes by talking with God and talking to herself.

She has not gotten mad at God and asked: Why?

''There's no point in getting mad. I figure He has a reason.''

She has told herself: ''Some people must see a body for closure, to know the person is dead. I don't. Besides, Joe is not in those nasty Everglades. He's in a better place. And he's happy.''

Her mind races back to the sad day she got the call from ValuJet. It was 1:30 p.m. - ''I'll never forget the time'' - on a Sunday.

The voice on the line wanted to know whether she was Joe Burnett's mother.

''When somebody asks you a question like that, and then says 'This is ValuJet. Your son was on that plane,' you can't do anything but fall apart. You step out of your body and into a nightmare.''

The caller said the plane carrying Joe and his fiancee, Ison Kim, crashed into the Florida Everglades. There were no survivors.

Before the phone rang, Jackie was getting ready to go to a family cookout. It was Mother's Day.

She shakes her head at the bitter irony of the tragedy's timing. Her cheeks redden. She starts to cry. Wiping her eyes with quick flicks of her index finger, she apologizes for ''puddling up.''

Finding peace

Three days after Mother's Day, Jackie and her daughters stood on a sandy patch of dry ground in the swampy Everglades. They were 300 yards from the crash site.

They were not alone in their grief. One hundred friends and relatives of the other crash victims stood nearby. They were attending a memorial service organized by members of the search and rescue teams.

Jackie held a photo of Joe and Ison. It was a happy snapshot of two people standing side by side and smiling.

Before a boat pulled away to lay a wreath of carnations at the site, the five women ''got in a huddle, prayed, cried and said goodbye to Joe.''

Then, Jackie had the photo placed with the wreath.

''That way Joe and Ison are out there, whole, instead of as they are.''

She watched the boat pull away from shore and disappear into the tall saw grass. With that, Jackie says, ''the healing started.''

Seeking a reason

On Monday, ValuJet was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is the same agency whose chief, David Hinson, declared on Mother's Day - the day Jackie Burnett learned her son was dead - that ValuJet ''is safe. I would fly on it. It meets our standards.''

Not anymore. The budget airline has been cited for horribly slipshod maintainence procedures. They were so shoddy it would be charitable to call them an accident waiting to happen.

''The FAA acted too late to save Joe, his fiancee and the crash's 108 other victims,'' Jackie Burnett says. ''But maybe the safety factor and helping to save other lives is the reason he's gone. A lot of people died out there in the Everglades, the most desolate, isolated and unforgiving place I've ever been. But sometimes that's what it takes to wake people up.''

If that's not enough, I have a suggestion. The next time an FAA bureaucrat says an airline is safe, send him to see Jackie Burnett.

Have him look her in the eye. Listen to how she says ''body parts.''

Then tell us again just how safe that airline is.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.