A U.S. military plane on a low-level training flight over the snowy Alps sliced through a cable car line Tuesday, sending a gondola full of skiers crashing hundreds of feet to the ground. At least 20 people inside the car died.
The car was flattened by the 300-foot drop. It “opened up like a cardboard box,” one police official said, and bodies were in pieces.
Officials at the U.S. air base in Aviano in northern Italy, where the Marine EA-6B Prowler was based, said all low-level missions by U.S. military aircraft in Italy have been suspended.
President Clinton, on a visit to New Mexico, issued a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the accident and that the United States will cooperate fully with the Italian government to find out what happened.
The pilot and his three-member crew returned safely to Aviano, 60 miles east of the resort, said Brig. Gen. Tim Peppe, commander of the base’s resident 31st fighter wing. The plane sustained minor tail damage.
RAI state television showed the crushed wreckage of the yellow cable car resting on the snow below its route. The cable trailed off like a twisted thread, but officials would not say how far from the car the cable had been cut.
The line’s other gondola was heading down at the time and the accident left it stuck and dangling. Rescuers pulled out its operator, the only person aboard.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the pilot “was apparently unaware that he had struck a cable or injured anyone.”
Base officials said American pilots fly dozens of training missions over Italy every day. The plane is a surveillance aircraft attached to the NATO force overseeing the Bosnian peace.
The accident occurred at 3:15 p.m. local time under sunny skies at a ski resort in the Val di Fassa area of the Dolomite Mountains near Trento. The cable car was traveling from the town of Cavalese, 80 miles northeast of Trento, to the top of Cermis mountain, site of a popular local ski resort.
The cabin had just begun its ascent from the base at Cavalese, at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, and was heading toward a mid-station when it fell, said Alessia Dezugliana, an employee of the Alpe Cermis ski area.
“You couldn’t guess the shape of the car anymore,” said Andrea Russo, a police official who arrived at the scene an hour after the accident.
One of the victims was the car’s Italian operator. The rest were skiers, at least six of them German, said police Officer Robert Cavada in Cavalese. RAI said two victims were Hungarian, and two were Poles.
The scene was near the spot where a 1976 accident on the same gondola lift killed 42 people. The accident was blamed on operator error.
Phone lines at nearby hotels were jammed with calls from worried relatives of vacationers.
The pilot was remaining on the base, said spokeswoman Capt. Tracy O’Grady-Walsh.
“It’s definitely fair to say he is concerned for all the families … involved in this,” she said. “I’m sure if he had the opportunity he would express his deepest sympathy for them.”
President Clinton expressed his sympathies to the victims’ relatives and friends.
“I have expressed my condolences to Prime Minister Prodi and assured him that we will cooperate fully with the Italian government and do everything we can to find out what happened and prevent an accident like this from happening again,” Clinton said in his statement.
The accident drew an immediate political response in Italy.
The Communist Refoundation party, which traditionally opposes the American military presence and supplies the government a majority in Parliament, renewed its call to close the Aviano base. Other leftist parties demanded an end to U.S. military flights over inhabited areas, and punishment for the pilot.
Aviano, about 62 miles east of the accident scene, is the largest U.S. air base in Italy, with nearly 6,000 military and civilian personnel. It has played a major role in NATO intervention efforts in Bosnia, and has hosted President Clinton for several visits to U.S. military personnel.