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Exclusive: Classified Documents Show U.S. Full Responsibility For 1998 Italy Ski Gondola Disaster

Just a month after 20 people were killed in northern Italy when a low-flying American military jet clipped a gondola line, the U.S. had already concluded that the crew and their supervisors were at fault. The pilot was later acquitted of manslaugher charg

Aviano air base in northern Italy (expertinfantry)
Aviano air base in northern Italy (expertinfantry)
Maurizio Molinari and Paolo Mastrolilli

NEW YORK - In Italy, it is still remembered as the epitome of American military "cowboy" behavior gone awry. On Feb. 3, 1998, 20 people died when a U.S. military plane cut a cable supporting a gondola of an aerial tramway in the ski resort of Cavalese, in Trentino Alto Adige, Italy.

Now, 13 years after what's become known as the "massacre of Cermis' – for the Cermis mountain peak where the gondola crashed -- La Stampa has obtained a classified U.S. Marine Corps Forces document that had recognized the marines' full responsibility just a month after the incident.

"The cause of this tragedy was that the Marine aircrew flew much lower than they were authorized to fly, putting themselves and others at risk," reads the document. It also recommended that "appropriate disciplinary and administrative action be taken against the mishap aircrew," and against the "Commanding Officer, Operation Officer, Director of Safety and Standardization, the Aviation Safety Officer and any Aircrew Training Officer for their failure in identifying and disseminating pertinent flight information for their local training flights." The document recommends the United States pay any legal reparation for deaths and damages.

General Peter Pace -- who at the time was Commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic/Europe/South, and later became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States' highest-ranking military office -- signed the final investigation report on the massacre of Cermis.

The document, obtained legally according to U.S. Federal laws, is dated Mar. 10, 1998. The previous month, on February 3, an EA-6B plane of the 31st Fighter Wing of Marine Corps, based at Aviano air base, in northern Italy, cut the cables of the aerial tramway of Cavalese. A cable car plunged 600 feet, killing the 20 people aboard. Gen. Pace ordered an investigation led by Gen. Michael DeLong. Italian Col. Orfeo Durigon and Col. Fermo Missarino took part to the investigation.

The executive summary of the report reads that on February 24, the Italian government formally asked the United States to renounce the personal jurisdiction over the four members of the aircrew. Nothing was decided and the investigation stayed under Gen. Pace's control. The conclusion of the final investigative report –revealed here for the first time -- is clear.

Origins of a tragedy

On Aug. 27, 1997, the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 arrived in Aviano to take part in operation "Deliberate Guard," in Bosnia. That same month, the Italian government ordered new directives on low altitude flights in Trentino Alto Adige, forbidding flights below 2,000 feet (around 700 meters.) Copies of the directive were given to all the pilots. One copy was found – unread - in the EA-6B, after the accident. In the flight deck there were also maps marking the aerial tramway. No one had opened them.

The aircrew consisted of the pilot Capt. Richard Ashby, the navigator Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, Capt. William Raney and Capt. Chandler Seagraves – who joined the crew at the last moment. According to the report, there is no evidence that any of them were under the influence of drugs or illegal substances, or had shown signs of psychological stress. They had never been reported for flat-hatting, but on January 24, Ashby had gotten a formal warning for a low take-off.

On February 2, Schweitzer started to plan the flight route for the low-altitude training mission, but used the wrong documents. Squadron commander, Col. Muegge, and his assistants Roys, Recce, Watton and Caramanian did not alert directly the pilots of the new flight altitude limitations. But Schweitzer did not plan to fly under 1,000 feet altitude, still much higher than the aerial tramway cables. Nevertheless, Gen. Pace concluded that the commanders should be sanctioned too.

On the morning of February 3, the plane took off for a mission in Bosnia. After its return, at 12.20 p.m., the morning pilot, Capt. Thayer, alerted about a fault in the "G meter," the radar altimeter. The instrument was changed. The radar altimeter seemed to work fine, even if, after the accident, the aircrew had denied having heard the sound that it emits to alert that the plane is flying below the concerted altitude. The afternoon pilot, Capt. Ashby, was qualified for a low-altitude flight, but had not been on a mission of that kind since July 3, 1997, and never in Italy.

The EA-6B plane, nicknamed Easy 01 on this mission, took off at 2.35 p.m. An AWACS radar plane was covering the flight and later provided the investigators with further details. According to a witness quoted in the investigation, at 2.50 p.m. a military jet was flying at low altitude and high speed over the village of Dimaro, in Trentino Alto Adige. The flight recoder confimed that the jet was Easy 01. After a few minutes, the plane was seen over the village of Pellizzano. At 3.08 p.m., Easy01 was seen flying at an altitude of 100 meters over the village of Ciago. Schweitzer said that the he could see the Marmolada Mountain, the arrival point of the training mission.

The final 45 seconds are reconstructed. Some witnesses saw Easy01 flying at a very low altitude over Molina di Fiemme. According to the report, the pilot claimed he did not know that there was an aerial tramway. When he saw it, he immediately descended, to avoid the car cabin, Ashby said. Schweitzer said he was shocked seeing the cable. Then he heard a sound, but he thought they had avoided it. In that moment, the radar altimeter marled 800 feet. It had already rung to alert the aircrew. The report concludes that at 3.13 p.m. the cables of Cermis aerial tramway were hit by Easy01 that was flying at less than 113 meters, or 370 feet, of altitude. According to the report, the plane speed was above the limit of 450 knots.

Return to base

After the impact, Ashby and Schweitzer alerted the control center in Padua. In Aviano, landing strip number 23 was freed for Easy01 to land. Maj. Gross, responsible of the security, looked at the plane with binoculars and testified that it seemed as it had hit a cable. Easy01 landed at 3.35 p.m.. There was a video camera in the flight deck, but nothing was recorded. It turned out later that Schweitzer had erased its memory after the accident.

After having read the investigation report, Gen. Pace concluded that the cause of the accident was crew error. It had surpassed the speed limit of 100 miles an hour and flew far below the allowed 2,000 feet of altitude. The general wrote that the impact was not casual, because the aircrew flew faster and at a lower altitude than it was allowed. He also blamed superiors for not having given clear orders.

There is also a final mystery. On March 5, Gen. Peppe, commander of 31st Fighter Wing, told the investigators that on February 4, the day after the accident, Col. Muegge had told him that everyone knew about the 2,000 feet altitude limit, except Ashby. According to Gen. Pace the conclusion was clear: all the claims for damages caused by the accident have to be paid.

On February 1999, the Italian government provided every victim's family with $65,000. In May 1999, the U.S. Congress rejected a bill that would have set up a $40 million compensation fund for the families of the victims, who came from Italy, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands. In December 1999, the Italian Parliament approved a monetary compensation of $1.9 million per victim. NATO treaties obliged the US government to refund 75% of this compensation.

Ashby and Schweitzer were found not guilty in the United States of charges of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Later they were convicted of obstruction of justice for having destroyed a videotape from the flight, and were subsequently dismissed from the Marines.

Read the original article in Italian

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