Italy Wraps Cable Car Probe

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 and control was co-responsible, an Italian parliamentary commission said Thursday.

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

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

The U.S. Embassy has received a copy of the report, said embassy spokesman Ian Kelly.

"We are going to study it and consider it very carefully, but until then we won't comment on it," Kelly said. "We do want to work together to prevent future tragedy."

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 pilot, Capt. Richard J. Ashby, 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, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 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 Ashby and Schweitzer 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," said Iacobellis.

No Italian government action is expected to be taken over the report.

©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed