Cavalese cable car disaster (1998)

Cavalese cable car disaster (1998)
Cavalese cable car disaster (1998)
Trentino (Cavalese is locatedabout 40 km NE of the city of Trento).
Trentino (Cavalese is located
about 40 km NE of the city of Trento).
Date February 3, 1998 (1998-02-03)
Time 14:13 local time
Location near Cavalese, Italy
20 dead (1 cable car operator, 19 passengers)

The Cavalese cable car disaster of 1998 (as distinct from a cable car disaster in the same location in 1976), occurred on 3 February 1998 near the Italian town of Cavalese, a ski resort located in the Dolomites, some 40 km north-east of Trento. The disaster, which led to the death of 20 people, occurred when a U.S. military plane cut a cable supporting a gondola of an aerial tramway.

The pilot of the military plane, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, were put on trial in the United States and were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Later they were found guilty of obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for having destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane and were dismissed from the Marines.

This event and the acquittal of the pilots put pressure on the international relationship between the United States and Italy, where it is known as the Strage del Cermis ("Massacre of Cermis", Cermis being the mountain to whose peak the cable car travelled).[1]


Details of the accident

EA-6B Prowler aircraft.

On 3 February 1998, 14:13 local time, an EA-6B Prowler, BuNo 163045, 'CY-02', callsign Easy 01, an electronic warfare aircraft belonging to VMAQ-2 of the United States Marine Corps, struck the cables supporting the aerial tramway-style cable car from Cavalese. The aircraft was flying at a speed of 540 miles per hour (870 km/h) and at an altitude of between 260 and 330 feet (79 and 100 m) despite orders from the Pentagon to keep above 1000 feet in that area. When reaching approximately 46°17′01″N 11°28′02″E / 46.283733°N 11.467237°E / 46.283733; 11.467237, the aircraft's right wing struck the cables supporting the cable car. The cable was severed and 20 people in the cabin descending from Cermis plunged over 80 meters to their deaths. The plane had wing and tail damage but was able to return to its base, Aviano Air Base.[2][3]


Those killed, 19 passengers and one operator, were all European nationals: eight Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Poles, one Austrian and one Dutch.[4]

  • Hadewich Antonissen (24, Wechelderzande), Belgian
  • Stefan Bekaert (28, Leuven), Belgian
  • Dieter Frank Blumenfeld (47, Burgstädt), German
  • Rose-Marie Eyskens (24, Kalmthout), Belgian
  • Danielle Groenleer (20, Apeldoorn), Dutch
  • Michael Pötschke (28, Burgstädt), German
  • Egon Uwe Renkewitz (47, Burgstädt), German
  • Marina Mandy Renkewitz (24, Burgstädt), German
  • Maria Steiner-Stampfl (61, Brixen), Italian
  • Ewa Strzelczyk (37, Gliwice), Polish
  • Filip Strzelczyk (14, Gliwice), Polish
  • Annelie (Wessig) Urban (41, Burgstädt), German
  • Harald Urban (41, Burgstädt), German
  • Sebastian Van den Heede (27, Brugge), Belgian
  • Marcello Vanzo (56, Cavalese) cable car operator, Italian
  • Stefaan Vermander (27, Assebroek), Belgian
  • Anton Voglsang (35, Vienna), Austrian
  • Sonja Weinhofer (22, born in Munich[citation needed] and living in Vienna), Austrian
  • Jürgen Wunderlich (44, Burgstädt), German
  • Edeltraud Zanon-Werth (56, born in Innsbruck[citation needed] and living in Brixen), Italian


President Bill Clinton offered an official apology,[5] and promised monetary compensation; the then-United States Ambassador to Italy, Thomas M. Foglietta, visited the accident site and knelt in prayer, offering apologies on behalf of the United States.

There were anti-American protests in Italy, where the event received the name of Strage del Cermis (Italian: "The massacre of Cermis").

First trial

Italian prosecutors wanted the four Marines to stand trial in Italy, but an Italian court recognized that NATO treaties gave jurisdiction to U.S. military courts.

Initially, all four men on the plane were charged, but only the pilot, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, actually faced trial, charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Ashby's trial took place at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It was determined that the maps on board did not show the cables and that the EA-6B was flying somewhat faster and considerably lower than allowed by military regulations. The restrictions in effect at the time required a minimum flying height of 2,000 feet (610 m); the pilot said he thought they were 1,000 feet (300 m). The cable was cut at a height of 360 feet (110 m). The pilot further claimed that the height-measuring equipment on his plane had been malfunctioning, and that he had been unaware of the speed restrictions. In March 1999, the jury acquitted Ashby, outraging the European public.[5] The manslaughter charges against Schweitzer were then dropped.

Second trial and re-examination

The two men were court-martialed a second time for obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, because they had destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane on the day of the accident. They were found guilty in May 1999; both were dismissed from the service and the pilot received a six-month prison term. He was released after four and a half months for good behavior. Schweitzer made a plea agreement that came to full light after the military jury deliberated upon sentencing. His agreement prevented him from serving any prison time, but it did not prevent him from receiving a dismissal.[6]

In late 2007, Ashby and Schweitzer asked for a re-examination of their trial and clemency, challenging their dismissals in order to be eligible for military benefits. On this occasion they claimed that during the first trial the prosecutor and the defense secretly agreed to drop the involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide charges, but to keep the obstruction of justice one in order to satisfy the requests coming from Italy. The appeal of Schweitzer was denied in November 2007.[7]

US official report

In a formal investigation report redacted a month after the tragedy (March 10, 1998) and signed by general Peter Pace, the US Marine Corps agreed with the results of the Italian officers. The investigation was led by General Michael DeLong, along with Italian Colonels Orfeo Durigon and Fermo Missarino. The document was kept secret until Italian newspaper La Stampa legally obtained a copy from US Archives and published it on July 13, 2011.

The Marine aircrew was determined to be flying too low and too fast putting themselves and others at risk. The investigation team suggested that disciplinary measures against the flight crew and commanding officers should be taken, agreed that US had to bear the full blame for what happened, and victims' relatives were entitled to receive a monetary settlement.[8]

The commission found that the squadron was deployed at Aviano on August 27, 1997, before the publishing of new directives by the Italian government forbidding flight below 2,000 feet (610 m) in Trentino Alto Adige. All the squadron's pilots received a copy of the directive. The letter was later found, unopened, in the cockpit of the EA-6B along with maps marking the cable car ropes.[9]

In the report, the pilots are said to be usually well-behaved and sane, without any previous case of drug abuse or psychological stress. Nevertheless, on January 24, they received a formal warning for taking off too low.[clarification needed] On February 2, Schweitzer planned the flight route for a low altitude training mission, using obsolete documents. It was proved that squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Muegge, and his assistants Captains Roys, Recce, Watton, and Caramanian did not alert the navigator about the new flight altitude limitations, maybe because the proposed flight had a lower ceiling of 1,000 feet (300 m), enough to be safe with any cable in the area. The report included an interview with the commander of 31st Fighter Wing, who stated the Muegge confessed to him that he and his crew except Ashby were aware of the current flight limitations. After approving the report, Pace suggested to take disciplinary measures for the commanders, too.

On the morning of the disaster, the plane underwent maintenance due to a fault in the "G meter", which measures g-forces, and was replaced. The radar altimeter was checked and reported in normal condition. After the disaster, Ashby reported the radar altimeter did not alert, but this is disputed and highly unlikely. At the time of the disaster, the radar altimeter was set at 800 feet (240 m), but the plane was flying at less than 400 feet (120 m).[9]

Ashby was qualified for low altitude flight, but his last training mission of that kind was flown over six months before, on July 3. The report includes flight tracing from a nearby AWACS airplane. The document reports a camcorder aboard the flight, but it was blank after being erased by Schweitzer.[9]


By February 1999, the victims' families had received $65,000 per victim as immediate help by the Italian government, which was reimbursed by the U.S. government.[10] In May 1999, the U.S. Congress rejected a bill that would have set up a $40 million compensation fund for the victims.[11] In December 1999, the Italian legislature approved a monetary compensation plan for the families ($1.9 million per victim). NATO treaties obliged the US government to pay 75% of this compensation, which it did.[12]

Theatre play

On 9 January 2002, at Bolzano's Teatro Studio has been represented a dramatic play called Ciò che non si può dire - Il Racconto del Cermis (Cermis Tale - What cannot be told), written by Italian novelist Pino Loperfido, author of the namesake book published in 2001 by Curcu & Genovese.

Other incidents

There had been a similar incident in August 1961 when six people died after a low-flying French military plane cut the cables of a cable car between the Helbronner peak and the Aiguille du Midi, in the French Mont Blanc range.

On 9 March 1976 in the worst cable car accident ever, the Cavalese cable-car disaster, 42 people including 15 children were killed on the same cable car system as this incident, when the supporting cable snapped.[3]


  1. ^ Scaliati, Giuseppe (2006). Dove va la Lega Nord: radici ed evoluzione politica di un movimento populista. Zero in condotta. p. 67. OCLC 66373351. 
  2. ^ John Tagliabue with Matthew L. Wald, "Death in the Alps: a special report.; How Wayward U.S. Pilot Killed 20 on Ski Lift", The New York Times, 18 February 1998.
  3. ^ a b Italian outrage over cable car tragedy, BBC news, Wednesday, 4 February 1998.
  4. ^ Le Vittime (list of the names of the victims) by the Comitato 3 Febbraio per la giustizia (3 February Committee for Justice), from (Italian)
  5. ^ a b Mary Dejevsky (5 March 1999). "Cable car pilot not guilty of killings". The Independent. 
  6. ^ Jury Sentences Marine in Ski-Lift Incident to Dismissal New York Times, 3 April 1999
  7. ^ Andrea Visconti, "Cermis, patto segreto dietro il processo", la, 2 February 2008. (Italian)
  8. ^ "Il rapporto finale sul Cermis [The final report on the Cermis"] (in Italian). Il Post (Italian Post). 13 July 2011. Retrieved 13 July 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c Maurizio Molinari and Paolo Mastrolilli (13 July 2011). ""È colpa nostra, dobbiamo pagare" ["It is our own fault, we have to pay""] (in Italian). La Stampa. Retrieved 13 July 2011. 
  10. ^ "America's Obligation in Italy", The New York Times, 10 March 1999
  11. ^ "US Congress decision not acceptable for Cavalese victims' lawyer", Agence France Presse, 17 May 1999
  12. ^ "Families of victims in Italian ski-lift disaster compensated", Agence France Presse, 26 April 2000

Coordinates: 46°15′20″N 11°30′24″E / 46.25556°N 11.50667°E / 46.25556; 11.50667

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