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Marine Flier: I Was Checking Map

The Marine flier whose jet cut a ski gondola cable, killing 20 people, testified Friday at his court martial that he was reading a map seconds before the accident occurred.

Capt. Richard Ashby, the pilot of the EA-6B Prowler that clipped the cable on Feb. 3, 1998, grasped a model of the jet mounted on a stick as he explained to the military jury how he lowered his plane into the valley where the ski lift was situated.

Ashby said that he checked the map to make sure he was in the right valley because he had missed its entrance a short time earlier.

CBS News Correspondent David Martin reports that Ashby said everything was fine as he started down the valley, then, "I saw this cable car . . . it seemed at first not to be a danger to me."

Then he saw the cable that supported the gondola.

"I thought this wire was going to go through the canopy. I thought, 'We are dead,'" Ashby testified. "I watched the wire go over the canopy and braced for this big crash."

But there was only a thump - a thump that severed the wire and sent 20 skiers plunging to their deaths.

His voice cracking as he wiped tears from his eyes, Ashby said he did not realize anyone had died until after he returned to Aviano Air Base.

The prosecution maintains Ashby was out for a joy ride, flying too low and too fast when he hit the cable just 360 feet above the valley floor.

But Ashby stuck to the story he first told 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace: "Mistakes were made and that's obvious. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened. But they weren't all our mistakes," he said.

Ashby testified he was never told about a 450-knot speed limit, never warned to watch out for a ski lift that wasn't on his map and that an altimeter which should have alerted him that he was too low had malfunctioned earlier in the flight.

But Ashby made one damaging admission. He hid a videotape taken earlier in the flight because he was afraid investigators would use it against him even though he said there was nothing on it that would show he had been joyriding.

During a testy, two-hour cross-examination by prosecutors, Maj. Daniel Daugherty asked Ashby: "Were you simply negligent, Captain Ashby, or were you recklessly negligent by doing something you weren't qualified to do putting your aircraft in a 2,400-foot-per-minute descent, flying as low as you could and as fast as you could?"

"Neither, sir," Ashby said.

"Those people died because you did that," Daugherty replied. The judge instructed the jury to disregard the statement.

Ashby faces 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, among other charges, and could be sentenced to more than 200 years in prison if convicted.

The plane's navigator Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, faces trial next month, also for involuntary manslaughter. Charges were dismissed against the two other men aboard the jet at the time of the accident.