Cavalese Cable Car Disaster

The Cavalese cable car disaster of 1998 (as distinct from a cable car disaster in the same location in 1976), occurred on 3 February 1998 near the Italian town of Cavalese, a ski resort located in the Dolomites, some 40 km north-east of Trento.

The disaster, which led to the death of 20 people, occurred when a U.S. military plane cut a cable supporting a gondola of an aerial tramway.

The pilot of the military plane, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, were put on trial in the United States and were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Later they were found guilty of obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for having destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane and were dismissed from the Marines.

This event and the acquittal of the pilots put pressure on the international relationship between the United States and Italy, where it is known as the Strage del Cermis ("Massacre of Cermis", Cermis being the mountain to whose peak the cable car travelled).

On 3 February 1998, 14:13 local time, an EA-6B Prowler, BuNo 163045, 'CY-02', callsign Easy 01, an electronic warfare aircraft belonging to VMAQ-2 of the United States Marine Corps, struck the cables supporting the aerial tramway-style cable car from Cavalese. The aircraft was flying at a speed of 540 mph and at ground scraping altitude (between 260 and 330 feet) despite orders from the Pentagon to keep above 1000 feet in that area. The aircraft's right wing struck the cables supporting the cable car. The cable was severed and 20 people in the cabin descending from Cermis plunged over 80 meters to their deaths. The plane had wing and tail damage but was able to return to its base, Aviano Air Base.

The Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has strongly criticised the low-level flight of an American military plane which cut the wires of a cable car at an Italian ski resort, plunging 20 people to their death.

Mr Prodi, who was visiting the scene of the accident in Cavalese in the Dolomite mountains, called it an act of tragic recklessness and a clear violation of the rules governing such flights.

He said the plane was flying virtually at ground level. He promised that a joint US-Italian inquiry would establish who was responsible and that justice would be done.

To many Americans, and probably most Europeans, the acquittal of Capt. Richard Ashby by a military jury may seem a miscarriage of justice. Twenty innocent tourists died last year in the Italian Alps when his low-flying Marine Corps jet severed the cable of their ski gondola in the Italian mountains. But the evidence presented at his court-martial showed that many others in the Marine Corps chain of command shared the blame. That gave the jury reason not to hold Captain Ashby criminally responsible.

When a Marine Corps jet hit a ski lift in northern Italy two weeks ago, killing 20 people, the pilot was violating orders to fly 1,000 feet above the ground and had veered into an area that the Italian Government says was both off course and off limits for this flight.

It was the crew's first flight through the pristine Alpine valley, framed by mountains and dotted with tiny villages and ski slopes. But the pilot of the EA-6B Prowler did not have Italian military charts provided to his commanders that marked the ski lift, which is also clearly noted on road maps.