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Cable Car Testimony To Continue

May 6, 1998

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ A Marine Corps jet was flying too low and too fast when it cut the cables holding an Italian ski gondola in which 20 people died, the squadron commander of the plane’s crew said.

``It’s not the way I would fly it. ... That’s pushing it pretty hard,″ Lt. Col. Richard Muegge said Tuesday at an investigatory hearing into the Feb. 3 incident over an Italian ski area.

The hearing was to resume today.

Muegge was among six witnesses who testified Tuesday in the first day of the proceeding against Capt. Chandler Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind., and Capt. William Raney II, 26, of Englewood, Colo.

Muegge said that when he flew the low-level training route through the Italian Alps, taking off from an air base at Aviano, he flew at 420 knots and the minimum allowed altitude of 1,000 feet.

The Prowler EA-6B flew between 480 and 530 knots and the pilot reported after the crash that he was flying at 800 feet, Muegge said. The crash investigation report said the cable was sliced at about 370 feet.

``I wouldn’t say it was unsafe, but it reduces your reaction time,″ Muegge said of the jet’s speed.

``I don’t consider flying below 1,000 feet unsafe, but it’s not what we’re allowed to fly. If I see that, it tells me something is being done not the way it’s supposed to be,″ he said.

The accident caused a rift between the United States and Italy and was expected to be discussed during today’s meeting between President Clinton and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

The hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, is used to determine whether Seagraves and Raney should be court-martialed.

Another hearing will be held in June for the jet’s pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif., and the navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 30, of Westbury, N.Y.

Seagraves and Raney were electronic jamming specialists sitting in the jet’s rear cockpit when it cut the ski lift cable.

The military says Seagraves and Raney are just as potentially culpable as the pilot and navigator because part of their job was to serve as lookouts.

The four aviators each face 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 20 counts of negligent homicide. The maximum sentence for each manslaughter count is 20 years in prison.

Earlier Tuesday, the judge heard conflicting testimony as to whether there were known gondola cables in the area.

One pilot testified that there was no gondola marked on the maps of the area he’d seen. Another crewman, a backseat electronic countermeasures officer, said he’d seen a map in a squadron file that had the words ``aerial cableway″ stamped on it.

``I don’t recall they are pointing out any specific aerial cableway, but I assume they are on there as a general warning,″ Capt. Scott Roys said.

Roys also said it was common knowledge there were ski areas near Aviano because many Marines had been skiing at them.

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