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Marines relieve officer as crash investigation continues

In this story:

February 11, 1998
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EST (0045 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. Marine officer has been removed from his command after allegedly instructing Marines to withhold evidence that might be useful in the investigation of an accident involving a jet that killed 20 people in Italy.

Lt. Col. Stephen Watters was relieved of his post Friday by Maj. Gen. Michael Ryan, commanding general of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing. The wing rotates four squadrons between Cherry Point, North Carolina, and a base near Aviano, Italy.

A Marine EA-6B Prowler jet on a training flight from the Aviano base last week severed a ski lift cable, sending a gondola crashing down a mountainside. All 20 passengers were killed.

Watters' squadron was not in Aviano at the time, but Marine Corps sources say he allegedly gathered about 60 officers at Cherry Point after the accident and told them that any videotapes they had showing altitude violations in the vicinity of the crash should "disappear."

One 40-minute videotape obtained by Marine investigators reportedly establishes that Watters himself violated the altitude restrictions while flying in the area about ten months ago. Sources say Watters admitted to violating the 1,000 foot restriction near the ski area, but claimed that he was unaware of a recent amendment to the altitude restrictions.

Officer could be court-martialed

If additional tapes exist that demonstrate a pattern of reckless flying in the area, they could be used as evidence in military or civil court proceedings.

Marine sources told CNN that Watters could be court-martialed for dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice if the allegations are substantiated.

Sources say that after Watters made his announcement to the pilots, a junior officer warned him that such an order, or even a suggestion, could constitute obstruction of justice.

Watters then reportedly began calling the pilots individually to revise his statement and asked them to bring any videotapes to him.

By that time, however, Gen. Ryan had learned of the situation and launched an investigation.

Watters has declined to comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, in Italy, a spokesman for the Aviano base said Wednesday that "significant progress" had been made in the investigation into the cause of the accident and a government official announced that minimum altitudes in the area had been raised.

"Investigators are continuing a steady process of gathering information from the accident site and the aircraft," said Col. Ray Shepherd at the Aviano base. "They are also interviewing personnel related to this incident."

All military flights suspended over region

Shepherd said aircraft system experts were analyzing a tape of the jet's mission and its radar altimeter.

Later, Trento Prosecutor Francantonio Granero, who leads the Italian investigation, told the Italian news agency ANSA that the reading of the mission recorder's data "went perfectly." He did not say what emerged from the data.

And at a session before the Chamber of Deputies, Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta said he had ordered the minimum flight altitudes raised from 500 feet (150 meters) to 2,000 feet (600 meters) for flights over the northern Italian Alps and from 500 to 1,000 feet (300 meters) for the rest of the country.

Andreatta also said he had suspended all military flights, both Italian and otherwise, over the Val di Fiemme region where the cable car fell.

"Admittedly, the terrible accident in Cavalese would not have occurred had the existing rules been properly applied and the proper maps used," Andreatta said. "I have, however, suspended flights over the Val di Fiemme route."


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