February 9, 1998 in Nation/World

Air Force Denies Cover-Up Jet’s Crew Issues Statement About Accident At Ski Resort

John Tagliabue New York Times
 

The crew of the American jet that sheared ski lift cables in northern Italy last week issued a message of sympathy to the families of the victims Sunday, and U.S. Air Force officials denied Italian charges that a delay in handing over the jet’s mission recorder was part of an attempted cover-up.

The accident on Tuesday sent a cable car hurtling to the ground, killing all 20 passengers.

Questions about the whereabouts of the plane’s mission recorder led to charges by Italian law enforcement officials of possible tampering with evidence.

Until Sunday, the four-member crew of the EA-6B Prowler, a Marine Corps electronic surveillance jet, had issued no public statements.

In Sunday’s statement, Richard J. Ashby, a Marine captain who was the plane’s pilot, and the three crew members said the accident at the ski resort of Cavalese is “a tragedy,” but they asserted they would “never do anything to purposely endanger the lives of others.”

“We cherish life and take our jobs very seriously,” the crew members, all Marine captains, said in a statement released by their Italian lawyer. “We all share in your tremendous loss.”

The statement, signed by all four crew members, contained no apology but concluded, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of you.”

President Clinton and senior members of the administration have sought to contain the political uproar in Italy over the deaths by pledging a full investigation.

The investigation is in the hands of an American-led team that includes the Italian commander of the Aviano Air Force base, which is under joint Italian and American command.

Italian law enforcement officials are conducting a parallel inquiry on the outside chance that the United States will relinquish jurisdiction if the investigation concludes that the pilot or crew are criminally liable.

The Air Force said the recorder was removed from the cockpit on Tuesday by a maintenance worker after the four crewmen had left the plane. They had exited quickly after landing because fuel was seen to be leaking as a result of the accident.

But the Air Force said a record was kept of the mission recorder’s whereabouts until it was handed over to investigators on Thursday.

U.S. Air Force officials said members of the investigating team tried unsuccessfully on Saturday to retrieve data from the recorder.

But the Air Force said there had been “no attempt to erase or damage any part of the tape.”

Marine aviators said parts of the coded data can be lost if the recorder is removed from the cockpit hurriedly without following a precise shutdown sequence of the plane’s power circuits, a measure intended to prevent the contents of the recorder from falling into enemy hands.

Even if the device’s contents are intact, however, it is doubtful they will provide much help in lifting the mystery surrounding the accident, the aviators said.

While the device records altitude above sea level, they said, its accuracy is not sufficient to be of much use in determining whether the jet was flying below minimum approved levels, as both American and Italian officials say they believe.


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