U.S. Promises Italy Full Cooperation
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MUNICH, Germany, Feb. 10, 1998 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen promised Italian authorities full cooperation in investigating a Feb. 3 accident involving a U.S. plane that killed 20 people at a ski resort in northern Italy.
"The United States government, President Clinton and I are deeply saddened by the cable car disaster," Cohen said here at a joint news conference Feb. 7 with Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta. "The United States is determined to work with Italy to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy as quickly as possible.
The tragedy occurred when a low-flying Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft apparently severed a gondola cable at Cavalese, sending 20 passengers plunging 300 feet to their deaths. The aircraft crew was unhurt; the plane sustained minor damage.
"I think emotions are running very high now -- understandably so," Cohen said. "I think they will continue to be high until the Italian people can be satisfied that they understand what happened, why it happened, and that they participated in a full investigation. In the meantime, we will examine what can be done to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Cohen said the United States will take whatever measures are necessary, including implementing training restrictions, to ensure the safety of innocent civilians and avoid such tragedies in the future. He added, however, there is a requirement to conduct low-level training in order to carry out missions in Bosnia and elsewhere.
Emotions will abate over time, Cohen said. "It's a difficult period now, but I think our relations are strong and deep and will endure."
Thanking Cohen and Clinton for their support, Andreatta said the Italian public is calling for a thorough investigation and will accept no obstacle to determining the truth.
"Honest cooperation between the two governments in this situation will strengthen the feeling of our friendship and our alliance," Andreatta said.
U.S. and Italian authorities also will have to determine what low-level flying should be allowed by NATO allies.
"Italy is a crowded country," Andreatta said. "A new disaster has to be prevented."
Cohen told reporters he assured Andreatta the United States is committed to a complete and open investigation. A team of military experts from both nations is currently investigating the accident, he said.
"An Italian Air Force colonel on that board has custody of the plane's mission recorder and radar approach control tapes," Cohen said. "Since there is more than one investigation under way, the United States and Italy will share all physical evidence collected.
"I want to take this occasion to express my deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims of this tragedy," Cohen told the media. He repeated an announcement he made earlier in Washington, that the United States is disbursing $100,000 to the families of the victims to help defray funeral expenses. U.S. and Italian legal officials are working under the Status of Forces Agreement to expedite payment of claims.
Tension developed between the United States and Italy immediately after the accident. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi voiced his nation's anger, calling the accident the result of "tragic recklessness."
Controversy then developed over conflicting U.S. and Italian reports on whether the pilot had been on course and at an authorized altitude when the aircraft cut the cable. Tensions increased even more after Italian authorities claimed U.S. officials were withholding and tampering with the plane's mission recorder.
"There has been some misinformation concerning this. The aircraft does not have a black box recorder comparable to that found in commercial airlines in terms of voice transmissions," Cohen told reporters. The plane has two separate recorders with information on the flight's latitude, longitude and flight path. "Both devices are now in the hand of Italian authorities and to my knowledge, there has been no tampering with that evidence."
Cohen said there is a need to collectively review common NATO flight requirements, including low-level flight rules, to help prevent such tragedies in the future.
"To this end, we are ready to bring our experience and our expertise together with our Italian friends and NATO allies to work on these issues," he said. "Working together, we will make training as safe and effective as possible."
Immediately after the tragedy, U.S. military officials suspended low-level training flights pending further investigation.
"We are going to undertake to see, in a joint fashion, what training requirements should be carried out to ensure our publics and our militaries that their missions can be safely completed in Bosnia and elsewhere," Cohen said.