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US Vows To Cooperate in Italy Probe

February 5, 1998

CAVALESE, Italy (AP) _ As an angry nation demanded an accounting, U.S. officials promised today to cooperate fully with Italians investigating why a Marine plane sliced a cable car line in the Alps, sending 20 Europeans to their deaths.

Residents of this small ski village in the Dolomites, who say the roar of jets often jolts them awake at night, mourned the dead at a memorial service.

Among the 1,000 people attending the service 100 yards from the cable car station was Gen. Richard C. Bethurem, commander of NATO air operations in southern Europe, who expressed American condolences.

``There’s an ongoing investigation, a cooperation of Italian and U.S. authorities,″ he said. ``It’s our wish that this investigation comes to a quick ending, so that the healing process can begin.″

Italian Premier Romano Prodi accused the pilots of ``tragic recklessness.″ Asked about that comment, a Pentagon official in Washington said, ``We cannot dispute that,″ The New York Times said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Speaking before residents, elementary school children and official delegations, an Italian priest summed up the feeling of many Italians that their repeated complaints about low-flying planes went unheeded.

``The skies are not for the most powerful or for the most aggressive,″ said the Rev. Lorenzo Casarotti. ``They are for everyone.″

``Today there are 20 people crying out against those who took over our skies. The people of Cavalese, officials have cried out about this. They went unheard,″ the priest said.

The Marine EA-6B Prowler swooped through the valley just above the treetops on Tuesday, severing the cable with its tail fin at a point about 300 feet above the ground. The plane returned safely to the U.S. air base in Aviano, 60 miles to the east.

``Everyone hates how they fly through here at supersonic speeds, instilling fear in all of us,″ said Renzo Alegretti, a 63-year-old retired union worker. ``They are crazy, completely irresponsible. It was an accident waiting to happen.″

Italian politicians and local officials are just as outraged.

``This is not about a low-level flight, but a terrible act, a nearly earth-shaving flight, beyond any limit allowed by the rules and laws,″ Prodi said Wednesday.

The defense minister, Beniamino Andreatta, said the pilot should be charged. Several influential lawmakers said U.S. bases in Italy should be closed and Italian and American investigators were looking into the accident.

The mayor of Cavalese, a town of 3,600, proclaimed a day of mourning today to honor the victims, which included eight Germans, five Belgians, two Italians and two Poles.

All ski lifts in the Val di Fiemme area shut down along with most of Cavalese’s stores, restaurants, and other businesses.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine team arrived in Aviano to investigate. Italian prosecutors have questioned the pilot and the three crew members but no charges have been filed.

``We don’t know what the facts are yet,″ Defense Secretary William Cohen said Wednesday on CNN’s ``Larry King Live.″ ``What happened, how that plane happened to be there, whether it was below limits. It’s under investigation right now.″

Aviano spokeswoman Capt. Tracy O’Grady said the pilot ``was on an approved low-level training mission,″ but did not say what altitude was authorized.

The Italian Defense Ministry said military flights must maintain a minimum altitude of 500 feet.

The cable car was on its way down Cermis mountain when it plunged to the valley floor, crushing everyone inside. It was just minutes away from reaching the base lodge when it fell.

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