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Reports Say Pilot Broke Military Rules Jet Was Less Than 400 Feet From Ground When It Sliced Cables

The U.S. Marine Corps jet that sliced through the cables of a ski lift in Italy, killing 20 people, was well below its approved altitude when the accident happened, the ANSA news agency reported.

A team of experts quoted by ANSA said they believe the EA-6B Prowler sped between two sets of cables on Feb. 3, sending a car packed with 19 European skiers and an operator plunging to the valley floor.

The cables were 260 feet from the ground at the lowest point and 400 feet at the highest, the report said. One took cars to the top of the mountain and the other took them down, the report said.

The team is working for an Italian prosecutor investigating the accident at a ski resort in the Dolomite mountains in northern Italy.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that a book used by U.S. military pilots specifically states that pilots in the area where the ski lift is located were to maintain a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet.

Lt. Col. Stephen Campbell also said the crew of the jet did not have a map that showed the ski lift cable.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the pilot had flown into an area the Italian government said was off course and was violating Pentagon rules by failing to stay at least 1,000 feet above ground.

Although the jet’s exact altitude is not known, the paper said the plane was flying below the 1,000-foot limit imposed by the U.S. military after a 1996 Prowler crash in Arizona killed four crew members.

The newspaper also reported that military charts marking the ski lift were provided to the commanders of the pilot - Capt. Richard J. Ashby - but not the pilot himself.

The accident has strained relations between Italy and the United States.

Italian and American militaries are conducting a joint investigation to determine whether any of the jet’s crew or its commanding officers should face charges. Italian civilian prosecutors are conducting a separate investigation.