What was the 1998 Cavalese Cable Car Crash?

Introduction

The Cavalese cable car crash, also known as the Strage del Cermis (Italian: Massacre of Cermis), occurred on 03 February 1998, near the Italian town of Cavalese, a ski resort in the Dolomites some 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Trento.

An air-to-air view showing two US Navy EA-6B Prowler aircraft from Electronic Attack Squadron One Three Nine (VAQ-139) “Cougars,” flying in formation during a routine training mission conducted in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The EA-6B’s primary mission is to protect fleet surface units and other aircraft by jamming hostile radars and communications.

Twenty people were killed when a United States Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft, flying too low and against regulations, in order for the pilots to “have fun” and “take videos of the scenery”, cut a cable supporting a cable car of an aerial lift. 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 US and Italy.

Outline

On 03 February 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 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 46.2837°N 11.4672°ECoordinates: 46.2837°N 11.4672°E, 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 (80 m), leaving no survivors. The plane had wing and tail damage but was able to return to Aviano Air Base.

Victims

Among the twenty killed, nineteen passengers and one operator, were seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Poles, two Austrians, and one Dutch.

Reactions

President Bill Clinton offered an official apology and promised monetary compensation. Thomas M. Foglietta, US Ambassador to Italy at the time, 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, the low-level flight was strongly criticised and some politicians called for a re-evaluation of rules or a complete ban of such exercises, though low-level flight was already illegal.

First Trial

Italian prosecutors wanted the four marines to stand trial in Italy, but an Italian court recognised that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) treaties gave jurisdiction to US military courts.

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 altitude-measuring equipment, the altimeter, 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 on the plane the day of the disaster. The existence and destruction of this videotape only came to the attention of military investigators in August 1998; the other two members of the crew, Captains Chandler P. Seagraves and William L. Raney, 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 behaviour. 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 defence 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.

US Official Report

In a formal investigation report redacted on 10 March 1998, and signed by Lieutenant General Peter Pace, the US 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 US archives and published it on 13 July 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 US 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 27 August 1997, before the publication 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 wire route. 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 24 January they had received a formal warning for flying too low after a training take-off.

On 02 February, 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 floor 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; the unit was replaced. The radar altimeter was checked and reported to be in normal condition. After the disaster, Ashby reported the altimeter never sounded a low altitude warning, but this is disputed and highly unlikely - at the time of the disaster, the altimeter was set to alert at 800 feet (240 m) and the plane had been flying at less than 400 feet (120 m).

Ashby was qualified for low-altitude flights and prohibited from diving below cables at all times. His last training mission of that kind was flown over six months before, on 03 July. 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.

Compensation

By February 1999, the victims’ families had received US$65,000 per victim as immediate help by the Italian 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 Parliament approved a monetary compensation plan for the families ($1.9 million per victim). NATO treaties obligated the US government to pay 75% of this compensation, which it did.

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