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U.S.: Marine jet crew at fault in Italy cable car accident

Cable car
Aftermath of the February 3 cable car accident   
March 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:33 p.m. EST (0433 GMT)

AVIANO, Italy (CNN) -- The United States on Thursday acknowledged that the crew of a Marine Corps jet was to blame for a cable car accident in Italy's Dolomites mountains last month in which 20 people died.

"It was an aircrew error. The crew flew lower and faster than authorized whenever ... there was a valley," Maj. Gen. Michael DeLong told a news conference at the U.S. air base in Aviano.

DeLong, the president of the accident investigation board, also said the U.S. Marine Corps has begun the process that could lead to court-martial for some or all of the jet's four-man crew.

Maj. Gen. Michael DeLong explained what happened   

Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander of Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic, has ordered the convening of an Article 32 hearing for members of the crew to determine whether charges, including involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, should be brought, DeLong said.

An Article 32 is the equivalent of a pre-trial hearing or grand jury proceeding.

The Marine EA-6B Prowler surveillance aircraft was on a training mission February 3 when it sheared cable car wires in the ski resort of Cavalese, sending a cabin plunging onto an icy mountainside.

All 20 passengers, including a 12-year-old boy, died instantly, crushed in the mangled wreckage of the cable car.

The tragedy prompted Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta to raise the minimum altitude for low-level flights in northern Italy.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told Andreatta in a telephone call on Wednesday that the United States would respect Italian air safety rules "with the utmost rigor" to avoid a repetition of the tragedy, Italy's Defense Ministry said.

Italian prosecutors are also investigating, and Italian authorities have asked for jurisdiction over the four men if the inquiry determines they should be charged.

The twin-engine electronics warfare plane was reported to have been flying at around 300 to 500 feet (90 to 150 meters), far lower than regulations allow, when it clipped the cable.

New rules laid down by Andreatta a week after the tragedy raised the minimum altitude for low-level flights over the Italian Alps from 500 feet (150 meters) to 2,000 feet (600 meters).

The altitude threshold for flights over Italy's northern plain, immediately south of the Dolomites, was raised from 500 feet to 1,000 feet. The threshold for specialist training missions would be lower, Andreatta said.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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