The military equivalent of a grand jury hearing was ordered on Thursday to determine whether the crew of a U.S. jet that sheared ski lift cables in Italy, killing 20 people, should be prosecuted on charges including involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide.
Speaking at a news conference on Aviano Air Base, where the plane was based, Maj. Gen. Michael P. DeLong, deputy commander of the Marine Corps Atlantic command, blamed the accident, in postcard-clear weather, on “crew error” and said it was caused by the way crewmen “aggressively maneuvered their aircraft” in steep Alpine valleys in northern Italy.
That verdict appeared to confirm the conclusion of some Italian officials that the crew of the plane, a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler, were “hot-dogging” down a densely populated valley when they severed the cables, bringing down the ski lift cabin on Feb. 3. The accident, which killed an Italian ski-lift operator and tourists from Italy, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, and Austria, provoked outrage in Italy and strained its relations with the United States. DeLong, who headed the investigation, said that the plane was flying at least 60 miles an hour over the maximum permitted speed and at “well below 1,000 feet” when it passed over the ski resort of Cavalese, the scene of the accident, but that those factors had not caused the accident. He said the flight should have been “planned, briefed, and flown” at an altitude not below 2,000 feet.
Numerous witnesses interviewed by investigators had reported that the crew was “aggressively maneuvering the aircraft,” and the general said that meant they were “flying the aircraft tactically,” as if they were in combat, making it more difficult for them to avoid hitting the lift cables.
DeLong said his investigating team - four Marine Corps officers and the Italian commander of the Aviano Air Base, assisted by 29 technical experts - had been unable to find out why the Prowler, a sophisticated electronic surveillance jet, was flying so low and so fast.
He said that the crewmen, on the advice of lawyers, had refused to be interviewed, “so we have no idea what they thought or what they were thinking.” Under the rules of the investigation, the crewmen were not compelled to provide information.
Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, the commander of all Marines in the Atlantic fleet, said he was forwarding the results of the investigation to Marine legal experts, and would convene an “Article 32” review, a kind of military grand jury, “to consider whether charges like involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, damage to private and government property, and dereliction of duty” should be brought against the crew of Capt. Richard J. Ashby, of Mission Viejo, Calif.
If convicted, Ashby and the other crewmen - Joseph Schweitzer, of Westbury, N.Y.; William Raney, of Englewood, Colo.; and Chandler Seagraves, of Nineveh, Ind., all Marine captains - could face prison sentences and dishonorable discharge. In a statement read at DeLong’s news conference, Pace said that he was also ordering “administrative action” against other Marine officers involved in the mission, and was commissioning an investigation to decide whether any should face charges.
The report recommended that other officers involved, including the squadron commander, the operations officer, and the director of safety and standardization, be given administrative penalties for their “failure to disseminate pertinent flight information.”
Italian officials welcomed the investigation’s results. The deputy defense minister, Massimo Brutti, said that the results confirmed Italian conclusions that the cause was “violation of the rules on the part of the crew.”
Brutti, speaking at a news conference on the Italian portion of the Aviano base, said that Italy continued to seek jurisdiction, but he conceded that the NATO practice was to allow trials in the country of origin.
DeLong said that the investigation ruled out malfunction of the aircraft or its equipment as a cause, and said that the ski lift was clearly marked on maps, known as tactical pilotage charts, that the crew carried with them on the flight. Lawyers for the crew had claimed that the ski lift was not marked on the maps, and copies of such charts shown to reporters in Washington did not display the lift. But DeLong said that the maps found aboard the aircraft after it returned to the Aviano base had the lift clearly printed on them.