Italian Government Calls American Pilots Criminal

The pilots of a U.S. Marine jet that sliced a ski gondola's cables in 1998, killing 20 people, acted as "criminals" and the U.S. chain of command was responsible, an Italian parliamentary commission said today.

The 25-member commission from the lower Chamber of Deputies investigated the cause of the accident on Mount Cermis, in northern Italy, for a year, sending a mission to the Pentagon in November.

"It's a shame that these two criminals — because this is what they are — were acquitted," Ermanno Iacobellis, a centrist who headed the commission, said of the pilots. "Their responsibility is clear and direct."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Ian Kelly, said embassy officials had received a copy of the report but would not comment on it until it had been thoroughly reviewed. "We do want to work together to prevent future tragedy," he said.

Restrictions on Low Flights Tightened

Both Italian and American investigators had found before that the EA-6B Prowler jet was flying too low and too fast when it hit the cable, sending the skiers crashing into the mountainside.

However, the commission said the current regulations for low-altitude flights are adequate. A year after the accident, Italy and the United States reached an accord for tightening restrictions of the low flights.

A U.S. military jury acquitted the jet's pilot of manslaughter. He was later sentenced to six months in prison and was dismissed from the Marines for helping to destroy a videotape of the flight. The jet's navigator was also dismissed from the Marines over the videotape. Charges were dropped against two back-seat crewmen.

The commission's report said, however, that "responsibility could not be limited to the crew … but involved the whole U.S. chain of command" at Aviano Air Base, where the two airmen were deployed for missions over Bosnia.

All the Marines there "enjoyed very broad and unusual autonomy, since effective controls over their activity was lacking," the commission found.

Iacobellis also lamented lack of action from Italian authorities, who, for years before the tragedy, had been receiving complaints by citizens in the ski mountain resort town of Cavalese about the low flights but never reported the danger.

"Italy was in a state of subjugation to NATO's higher needs," Iacobellis said.