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Witness Recalls Cable Car Accident

February 9, 1999

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ Carlo Demattio was walking his dogs through a valley in the Italian Alps when he heard the roar of a jet.

``I looked up and I saw an airplane coming down very, very fast,″ Demattio, of Cavalese, Italy, recalled in a courtroom Monday. ``There was this loud noise and I looked up and screamed, `What, are they crazy to be flying so low over a residential area?′

``I started screaming, `The cable, the cable.‴

Moments later the cable, strung across the valley and the lifeline of a gondola carrying 20 skiers, was severed by a wing on the EA-6B Prowler jet. The gondola plummeted to the ground, killing everyone inside.

``When I saw the destruction, I knew there was nothing to do,″ said Demattio, a former police officer who testified through an interpreter. ``In fact, nobody answered me.″

His testimony came at the court-martial of Capt. Richard Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif. Ashby, a Marine pilot, is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the incident on Feb. 3, 1998.

The eight-man military jury was to be flown today to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point to sit in the pilot’s seat of a Prowler, then to a flight range to watch a Prowler and another jet fly overhead.

Prosecutors claim Ashby was negligently flying too low and performed an unauthorized barrel roll with the jet just before it severed the cable.

Defense attorneys say a map issued to Ashby didn’t show the Mount Cermis ski lift, the jet’s radar altimeter wasn’t reliable and the crew didn’t have enough training. They also say Ashby doesn’t deny hitting the cable and that he regrets the deaths every day.

``His actions aren’t criminal,″ defense lawyer Capt. Jon Shelburne told the jury. ``They were just doing their jobs. It was just an accident. It was an accident waiting to happen.″

Ashby, whose squadron was based at Cherry Point, was on his second tour of duty at Aviano air base in Italy at the time of the accident. He faces a maximum of more than 200 years in prison if convicted of the manslaughter counts.

The Prowler’s navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y., is scheduled to be tried next month for the deaths.

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