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20 Dead After Marine Aircraft Severs Cable

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

MONS, Belgium, Feb. 5, 1998 – A U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft on a low-level training mission in northeast Italy severed a gondola cable at a ski resort Feb. 3, sending 20 passengers to their deaths.

Nine women, 10 men and one child were killed when the gondola plunged about 300 feet onto the mountainside at Cavalese. The victims were reported to be from Germany, Hungary and Poland. A second gondola was left dangling from the cable. Rescuers pulled out the operator, the only passenger aboard. The accident occurred under sunny skies at about 3 p.m., local officials said.

The aircraft, temporarily stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, received only minor damage, Air Force officials there said. The Prowler returned to the base, about 90 miles southeast of the accident site, where Air Force officials said the pilot and three-member crew were unhurt.

"The aircraft was performing a solo low-level training mission in support of NATO air operations when the incident occurred," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Timothy Peppe, 31st Fighter Wing commander at Aviano. "It would appear that the wing and vertical stabilizer were impacted."

Air Force officials suspended all low-level flying operations from Aviano until further notice, Peppe said. Medium-altitude flights and Bosnia missions continued.

Shortly after news of the accident reached the United States, President Clinton, visiting Albuquerque, N.M., sent condolences to the Italian government with pledges of full U.S. cooperation in the accident investigation.

"[We will] do everything we can to find out what happened and prevent an accident like this from happening again," Clinton said. "On behalf of the American people I offer my heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of those killed and injured in this accident."

During a break in his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters he intended to call his Italian counterpart.

"We want to express to the Italian people and the Italian government our deepest sympathies and regrets over this unfortunate accident," Cohen said.

Air Force officials sent a humanitarian assistance team from the 31st Fighter Wing to Cavalese to provide medical, engineering and professional support to Italian rescue teams, Aviano officials said.

The aircraft involved in the accident is one of three EA-6Bs assigned to the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing, supporting NATO air operations over Bosnia. They are permanently assigned to Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. They are electronic warfare aircraft.

Officials at U.S. Marine Forces Atlantic appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident.

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