Cavalese cable car disaster (1998)
Two U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowlers, of the type involved in the incident
|Date||February 3, 1998|
|Time||15:13 local time|
|Location||near Cavalese, Italy|
|20 dead (1 cable car operator, 19 passengers)|
The Cavalese cable car disaster of 1998, also called the Strage del Cermis (Italian: Massacre of Cermis) occurred on February 3, 1998, near the Italian town of Cavalese, a ski resort in the Dolomites some 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Trento. Twenty people died when a United States Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft, while flying too low, against regulations, in order for the pilots to "have fun" and "take videos of the scenery", cut a cable supporting a gondola of an aerial tramway. Joseph Schweitzer, one of the two American pilots, confessed in 2012 that he had burned the tape containing incriminating evidence upon returning to the American base. The pilot, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, were put on trial in the United States and found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Later they were found guilty of obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for having destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane, and were dismissed from the Marine Corps. The disaster, and the subsequent acquittal of the pilots, strained relations between the U.S. and Italy.
Details of the disaster
On February 3, 1998, an EA-6B Prowler, BuNo (bureau number) 163045, 'CY-02', callsign Easy 01, an electronic warfare aircraft belonging to Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2) of the United States Marine Corps, was on a low altitude training mission. At 15:13 local time it struck the cables supporting the aerial tramway-style cable car from Cavalese. The aircraft was flying at a speed of 540 miles per hour (870 km/h) and at an altitude of between 260 and 330 feet (80 and 100 m) in a narrow valley between the mountains. When reaching approximately Coordinates: , the aircraft's right wing struck the cables from underneath. The cable was severed causing the cabin from Cermis with twenty people on board to plunge over 260 feet (79 m), leaving no survivors. The plane had wing and tail damage but was able to return to Aviano Air Base.
President Bill Clinton offered an official apology and promised monetary compensation. The then-U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Thomas M. Foglietta, visited the crash site and knelt in prayer, offering apologies on behalf of the United States. In Italy, where the event received the name of Strage del Cermis (Italian: The Massacre of Cermis), the low-level flight was strongly criticized and some politicians called for a re-evaluation of rules or a complete ban of such exercises.
Initially, all four men on the plane were charged, but only the pilot, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, actually faced trial, charged with twenty counts of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Ashby's trial took place at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It was determined that the maps on board did not show the cables and that the EA-6B was flying somewhat faster and considerably lower than allowed by military regulations. The restrictions in effect at the time required a minimum flying height of 2,000 feet (610 m); Ashby said he thought they were at 1,000 feet (305 m). The cable was cut at a height of 360 feet (110 m). Ashby further claimed that the height-measuring equipment on his plane had been malfunctioning, and that he had been unaware of the speed restrictions. In March 1999, the jury acquitted Ashby, outraging the Italian public. The manslaughter charges against Schweitzer were then dropped.
Second trial and re-examination
Ashby and Schweitzer were court-martialed a second time for obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, because they had destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane on the day of the crash. The existence and destruction of this videotape only came to the attention of military investigators in August 1998, once Captain Chandler P. Seagraves received testimonial immunity and elected to disclose "the truth about everything."
Ashby and Schweitzer were found guilty in May 1999; both were dismissed from the service and Ashby received a six-month prison term. He was released after four and a half months for good behavior. Schweitzer made a plea agreement that came to full light after the military jury deliberated upon sentencing. His agreement prevented him from serving any prison time, but it did not prevent him from receiving a dismissal.
In their appeal, Ashby and Schweitzer asked for a re-examination of their trial and for clemency, challenging their dismissals in order to be eligible for military benefits. They claimed that during the first trial the prosecution and the defense secretly agreed to drop the involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide charges, but to keep the obstruction of justice charge, in order to satisfy the requests coming from Italy. The appeal of Schweitzer was denied in November 2007. Decisions from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces were made available in August 2009.
U.S. official report
In a formal investigation report redacted on March 10, 1998 and signed by Lieutenant General Peter Pace, the U.S. Marine Corps agreed with the results of the Italian officers. The investigation was led by General Michael DeLong, along with Italian Colonels Orfeo Durigon and Fermo Missarino. The document was kept secret until the Italian newspaper La Stampa legally obtained a copy from the U.S. archives and published it on July 13, 2011.
The Marine aircrew was determined to be flying too low and too fast, putting themselves and others at risk. The investigation team suggested that disciplinary measures against the flight crew and commanding officers should be taken, that the U.S. had to bear the full blame for what happened, and that victims' relatives were entitled to receive a monetary settlement.
The commission found that the squadron was deployed at Aviano on August 27, 1997, before the publishing of new directives by the Italian government forbidding flight below 2,000 feet (610 m) in Trentino-Alto Adige. All the squadron's pilots received a copy of the directive. The letter was later found, unopened, in the cockpit of the EA-6B along with maps marking the cable car ropes. Directives were irrelevant here, since diving below cables was prohibited at all times anyway. In the report, the pilots are said to be usually well-behaved and sane, without any previous case of drug abuse or psychological stress. Nevertheless, on January 24, they had received a formal warning for flying too low after a training take-off.
On February 2, Schweitzer planned the flight route for a low altitude training mission using obsolete documents. It was proved that the squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Muegge, and his assistants, Captains Roys, Recce, Watton, and Caramanian, did not alert the navigator about the new flight altitude limitations, maybe because the proposed flight had a lower ceiling of 1,000 feet (300 m), enough to be safe with any cable in the area. The report included an interview with the commander of 31st Fighter Wing, who stated that Muegge confessed to him that he and his crew, save for Ashby, were aware of the current flight limitations. After approving the report, Pace suggested disciplinary measures be taken against the commanders as well.
On the morning of the disaster, the plane underwent maintenance due to a fault in the "G meter", which measures g-forces, and was replaced. The radar altimeter was checked and reported in normal condition. After the disaster, Ashby reported the altimeter did not alert, but this is disputed and highly unlikely. At the time of the disaster, the altimeter alert was set at 800 feet (240 m), but the plane was flying at less than 400 feet (120 m).
Ashby was qualified for low-altitude flights and prohibited diving below cables at all times. His last training mission of that kind was flown over six months before, on July 3. The report includes flight tracing from a nearby AWACS airplane. The document reports a camcorder aboard the flight, but it was blank after Schweitzer had taken the original cassette and burned it afterwards.
By February 1999, the victims' families had received USD $65,000 per victim as immediate help by the Italian government, which was reimbursed by the U.S. government. In May 1999, the U.S. Congress rejected a bill that would have set up a $40 million compensation fund for the victims. In December 1999, the Italian legislature approved a monetary compensation plan for the families ($1.9 million per victim). NATO treaties obligated the U.S. government to pay 75% of this compensation, which it did.
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- "United States v. Ashby, 08-0770/MC (C.A.A.F. 2009)", Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, 31 August 2009.
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- Maurizio Molinari and Paolo Mastrolilli (13 July 2011). ""È colpa nostra, dobbiamo pagare" ["It is our own fault, we have to pay"]". La Stampa (in Italian). Retrieved 13 July 2011.
- "Il rapporto finale sul Cermis [The final report on the Cermis]" (in Italian). Il Post (Italian Post). 13 July 2011. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
- "Seconds From Disaster", National Geographic documentary S04 E05, 2011 (Schweitzer interview).
- "America's Obligation in Italy", The New York Times, 10 March 1999
- "US Congress decision not acceptable for Cavalese victims' lawyer", Agence France Presse, 17 May 1999
- "Families of victims in Italian ski-lift disaster compensated", Agence France Presse, 26 April 2000