20 die as US warplane hits cable car in Italian resort

A United States military aircraft on a low-flying training mission caused the deaths of 20 holiday-makers in the Dolomites resort of Cavalese yesterday after it accidentally clipped the line of a cable car and caused a cabin to plunge into the mountainside. Andrew Gumbel reports.

The aircraft came roaring into the valley above Cavalese, causing a terrible bang as it severed the cable, according to witnesses. The bright yellow cabin and the large metal hook holding it in place were sent flying and fell some hundred metres into a snowfield. The impact and the weight of the hook caused the cabin to collapse in on itself in a mess of twisted metal and shattered glass, leaving no chance for anyone to survive.

"I saw the thing flipping over," one witness told reporters on the scene. "The impact of the aircraft just blew the cabin away," said another.

Rescue workers, aided by a special unit of forensic science police drafted in from the city of Padua, were last night carrying out the grim task of examining each twisted, blood-spattered body and attempting to identify them under bright electric lights. Most of the victims were believed to be German tourists, including one young boy. The cable-car operator, who also died, had swapped shifts with a colleague at the last moment.

By some twist of fate, the accident occurred on the very same cable car where 42 people plunged to their deaths in 1976, the worst such accident ever in a mountain resort. On that occasion, the cables snapped all by themselves.

This time, the accident prompted an immediate list of questions about the behaviour of training aircraft from the United States base at Aviano, 90 miles away towards the Adriatic coast, and the wisdom of carrying out low-flying exercises in a tourist area.

Italy's President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, called for an immediate inquiry into the accident as well as a review of procedure involving military aircraft on Italian territory. In Cavalese itself, local officials were beside themselves with anger. "We don't want our mountains to become some Wild West where people can play with human lives," said Giampietro Vecli, head of the local rescue services. Magistrates have opened a manslaughter inquiry.

The president of Trento province, Carlo Andreotti, said that the people of Cavalese had protested several times about US manoeuvres, and that aircraft had been known to fly beneath the car cables as well as just above them.

A statement from the Aviano base offered "deepest sympathy" for the accident and promised a separate investigation conducted by a board of its officers. President Bill Clinton also called the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, offering his commitment to ensure that no such accident could be allowed to occur again.

The four-man surveillance aircraft was an EA-6B Grumman Prowler, equipped with tactical jamming systems that was being used as part of the US Air Force's operation to back up Nato peace-keeping forces in Bosnia. "The Marine aircrew was not injured and the aircraft sustained only minor damage," the statement from Aviano base said.

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