A military investigation into the cable car tragedy that killed twenty people in an Italian ski village, concluded that the Marine plane was flying too low and going too fast. Jim Lehrer talks with Mark Thompson, military correspondent for Time Magazine, about the report's findings.
KEVIN DUNN, ITN: The military investigation confirmed what had been obvious from the moment the tragedy occurred. The plane, which severed the ski lift cable in the Italian resort of Cabalasi, was flying far too low.
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Twenty people died.
Twenty skiers in a cable car plunged 300 feet to their deaths. The four-man crew of the plane, an A-6 Prowler used for electronic warfare, were apparently unaware they had sliced through the cable until they returned to their base at Albiano, near Venice. They were immediately grounded. The accident investigation found they were wholly responsible.
MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG, U.S. Marine Corps: The cause of this accident was not the weather or aircraft malfunctions or equipment failure but the actions of the air crew.
KEVIN DUNN: The crewmen have refused to be interviewed, so the reason for their actions remains a mystery. Since the accident, minimum flying levels over Northern Italy have been raised. The accident prompted a surge of anti-American feeling in Italy and gave weight to demands long made by the Communist Party for American bases in the country to be closed.
JIM LEHRER: Now to Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for Time Magazine. Mark, the Marine investigation had several--drew several conclusions. The plane was flying too low.
MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And what altitude was it at, and what altitude should it have been?
MARK THOMPSON: It should have been at 2,000 feet. The Marines were told they could fly as low as 1,000 feet, which was wrong. But, in any event, they were far below even 1,000 feet, and they struck the cables at roughly 360 feet.
JIM LEHRER: Now, did the report conclude as to why they were flying so low?
The report's conclusion: "crew error".
MARK THOMPSON: It said it was "crew error." I mean, they blamed it on the guy behind the wheel. They didn't blame it on any equipment; they didn't blame it on weather. But they could not reach a conclusion as to why he was flying that low.
JIM LEHRER: It wasn't part of any particular training exercise--
MARK THOMPSON: No.
JIM LEHRER: --that said, hey, fly that low.
MARK THOMPSON: No. In fact, they said it was not an aberration, it was not a one-time snafu, that throughout the mission they were too low and too fast.
JIM LEHRER: Now, how about too fast, how fast were they going, how fast should they have been going?
MARK THOMPSON: They are not supposed to go any faster than 450 knots at these low altitudes. They were somewhere between 451 and 550 knots for the bulk of the flight. So it might have been a little faster than what they were supposed to be doing, or quite a bit faster. They didn't specify.
JIM LEHRER: Here again, why?
MARK THOMPSON: Nobody really knows. I mean, what was interesting about the report was it really was two reports. All of the commanders and the pilots said this crew was great. Yet, when you read the report and look at the details, you see all of these things that are raising red flags, and the report really doesn't square those two contradictory things.
JIM LEHRER: And it does not speak of motivation, right?
MARK THOMPSON: No, it does not because the crew submitted written statements. They refused to answer questions. And, in fact, it was eight days before their lawyers turned their statements over to the investigators. So there are a lot of open-ended questions.
JIM LEHRER: Is that unusual for members of the military to decline to be interviewed in a matter like this?
MARK THOMPSON: Yes, it is unusual, but it seems to be becoming more and more common. And it wasn't only the four on the airplane who refused to answer questions. Several others did as well. But we saw this in Tailhook, and I think it's part of the world we're in now today.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, individual members of the United States military have Fifth Amendment rights, just like everybody else?
MARK THOMPSON: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: And they--in the past, they didn't--somebody--a commander says, tell me what happened, and somebody stood at attention and told ‘em what happened; they don't do that anymore.
MARK THOMPSON: That's right. I mean, it used to be the military took precedence and the individual was subordinated, but that balance is coming a little back the other way now, I think.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, the report also makes some recommendations as to what should be done now about these four crewmen.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: What are they?
MARK THOMPSON: Basically, they're going to get an Article 32 hearing, which is a military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, where they'll be looked at for potential charges of involuntary manslaughter, of negligent homicide. Involuntary manslaughter under the UCMJ carries--
JIM LEHRER: It's the Uniform Code of Military Justice, right?
Mr. Thompson : "it's conceivable that these fellows could face 200 years in prison."
MARK THOMPSON: The Uniform Code of Military Justice carries up to 10 years' per count, and with 20 people dying, it's conceivable that these fellows could face 200 years in prison.
JIM LEHRER: And is that seen within the Pentagon as a real possibility now?
MARK THOMPSON: I don't think it seems a real possibility. I think there's a lot of people in the Pentagon who believe this was a tragedy and not deliberate, but there is some sentiment that it was deliberate, that they were hotdogging. And we may learn more.
JIM LEHRER: Showboating, hotdogging.
MARK THOMPSON: There was a video camera in the front cockpit. There was nothing on it when investigators looked at it, and there was a still camera in the back seat. Pilots are allowed to take cameras, personal cameras on board to take pictures, but this shows there might have been something going on.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, the report also speaks to responsibilities on further up the chain of command.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Explain that. What do they say?
MARK THOMPSON: Basically, what they say is that these guys should have been flying at 2,000 feet, and they should have been briefed to fly at 2,000 feet. The Italians complained last August that the planes were flying too low, and they were making too much noise. And that time they were allowed to fly at 1,000 feet. So--
JIM LEHRER: You mean, in this specific area?
MARK THOMPSON: Right. In this specific area. So the Marines agreed and boosted it to 2,000 feet. But that message never got down to the people who are flying. Even though it was in a book that was in their ready room that they could read, nobody apparently read it, and they used outdated papers to file their flight plans that allowed 1,000 feet of altitude. Consequently, the superior's report says, did not do a proper job in ensuring that the pilots knew how high they could go, or how low they could go.
JIM LEHRER: What does the report recommend be done with them?
MARK THOMPSON: They're recommended for administrative action. They may get a letter of reprimand or something. There's not a suggestion of a court martial or anything really punitive, and as the report notes repeatedly, if these fellows had been flying their jet at 1,000 feet, this accident never would have occurred.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the Italians wanted these Marines--these four Marines--the four crew members, going back to the crew members now, they wanted them tried in Italy under Italian law. Now, has a decision been made on that yet?
Mr. Thompson: "I don't think the pilots or the crew members have anything to gain by being tried in a U.S. military court...."
MARK THOMPSON: No, but the Pentagon is tilting very strongly to rejecting that. I mean, it is a dangerous precedence, because there's a sense here of vengeance. I think the pilots, all pilots would feel somewhat nervous if they were essentially to be tossed to a foreign government for prosecution. I think that the Marines are taking this seriously and will deal with it fairly, and I don't think the pilots or the crew members have anything to gain by being tried in a U.S. military court, but I think that's what the military will prefer to do, as opposed to turning them over to the Italians.
JIM LEHRER: Now, there is precedent for this. The Marines did this in Okinawa, to the Japanese authorities in Okinawa, when how many--I forgot now--how many were involved?
MARK THOMPSON: There were three.
JIM LEHRER: Three American service people.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Were accused of raping a young girl.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Right?
MARK THOMPSON: That's right. And they were convicted. The status of forces agreements between Italy and Japan are somewhat different. In Japan, they felt a greater need to turn ‘em over than they do here. There's still, I'm told, a slight window that they could be turned over, but it's not looking that way. We should know within several days.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you said just now that the Marines are taking this very seriously. What did you mean by that?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, the report was done very quickly. This is a pretty terse report. It's only 70 pages long. When the Air Force investigated the shoot down over Iraq, they came out with 24 volumes several months later. The Marines I think want to get to the bottom of this; there are some things in the report that are pretty hard hitting, that raise questions. The pilot in command had never flown low over Italy on this deployment until this flight. He'd been there for six months. He had never flown a low flight for seven months. He was not proficient flying low. That's really not the pilot's fault; that's his superior's fault. Some people are going to be angry with that. And if you look through the entire report, you get a sense that there was some sloppiness there. And this is not pleasant at Marine headquarters.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you said there was an empty videotape camera.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, is there a smell at least in the report of a possible cover-up here?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, that's a very good question. The report is a Marine report. It doesn't address all the obvious questions a newsman might have. It doesn't say whether or not there was ever anything filmed on that videotape. They say the videotape was blank. But, as you well know, you can turn a videotape on and put the lens cap on and all you get is black. They don't say they analyzed the tape and revealed that something might have been videotaped and then recorded over to make it go away. So we just don't know yet.
JIM LEHRER: Is there anything in the report about the actions of the crew after they realized what had happened?
MARK THOMPSON: The report states that they knew--the pilot knew as soon as they hit the cable what had happened and from that point on the flight was flown by the book. If you go back and review the accident report, every step of the way it's labeled by the investigators "proper," "successful," "did it right."
JIM LEHRER: Did they go up to 2,000 feet?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, they went up higher, sure, just because they had to figure out where they were and what the problem was, and they declared an in-flight emergency. But at every step with this wounded airplane--and it was quite wounded--they did everything by the book. Prior to the impact, it looked like they did not do much by the book.
JIM LEHRER: So the early reports that the pilot did not know that he had hit a cable just turned out to not to be true, right?
MARK THOMPSON: Right. He said when he came to the ground, "I know I hit a cable." And it's stated in the report.
JIM LEHRER: He just didn't know he'd hit that particular ski cable, and a gondola had fallen with people in it?
MARK THOMPSON: Right. They didn't know that. I mean, when they sliced the cable, a 16-ton counter weight fell to the ground and totally destroyed one of the stanchions and--
JIM LEHRER: Counterweights on the plane, yes.
MARK THOMPSON: Right, right. But I mean, they just, you know, really didn't know what was going on until they got down when they talked about it, but it was obvious that all four of the crewmen knew that something had gone wrong when they were in the air.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Mark Thompson, thank you very much.
MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Jim.