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The Cavalese cable car disaster of 1998 (as distinct from the similarly named disaster of 1976), occurred on 3 February 1998 near the Italianmarker town of Cavalesemarker, a ski resort located in the Dolomitesmarker, some 40 km north-east of Trentomarker. 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 Statesmarker and Italymarker, where it is known as the Strage del Cermis ("Massacre of Cermis", Cermismarker being the name of the nearest mountain).

Details of the accident

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 a gondola in Cavalese after flying low through the valley at more than 500 mph. The cable was severed and 20 people in the cabin plunged over 80 metres to their deaths. The plane had wing and tail damage but was able to return to its base, Aviano Air Basemarker.


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

  • Hadewich Antonissen (24, Wechelderzande), Belgian
  • Stefan Bekaert (28, Leuvenmarker), Belgian
  • Dieter Frank Blumenfeld (47, Burgstädt), German
  • Rose-Marie Eyskens (24, Kalmthoutmarker), Belgian
  • Danielle Groenleer (20, Apeldoornmarker), Dutch
  • Michael Pötschke (28, Burgstädt), German
  • Egon Uwe Renkewitz (47, Burgstädt), German
  • Marina Mandy Renkewitz (24, Burgstädt), German
  • Maria Steiner-Stampfl (61, Brixenmarker), Italian
  • Ewa Strzelczyk (37, Gliwicemarker), Polish

  • Filip Strzelczyk (14, Gliwice), Polish
  • Annelie (Wessig) Urban (41, Burgstädt), German
  • Harald Urban (41, Bürgstädt), German
  • Sebastian Van den Heede (27, Brugge), Belgian
  • Marcello Vanzo (56, Cavalesemarker) cable car operator, Italian
  • Stefaan Vermander (27, Assebroekmarker), Belgian
  • Anton Voglsang (35, Viennamarker), Austrian
  • Sonja Weinhofer (22, born in Munichmarker and living in Viennamarker), Austrian
  • Jürgen Wunderlich (44, Burgstädt), German
  • Edeltraud Zanon-Werth (56, born in Innsbruckmarker and living in Brixenmarker), Italian


President Bill Clinton offered an official apology, and promised monetary compensation; the 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 ("Massacre of Cermis", Cermismarker being the name of the nearest mountain) ; some complained about the presence of American air bases on Italian territory, and even questioned membership in the NATOmarker alliance. Slogans used by the protesters included NATO per uccidere (NATO to kill or Born to kill; "NATO" also means "born" in Italian).

First trial

Italian prosecutors wanted the four Marines to stand trial in Italy, but an Italian court recognized that NATOmarker 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 Lejeunemarker, North Carolinamarker. 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 ; the pilot said he thought they were . The cable was cut at a height of . 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. 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. (Shortly after his release, Ashby caused a disturbance at a Las Vegasmarker casino and was cited for trespassing.) 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.

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.


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.In May 1999, the U.S. Congress rejected a bill that would have set up a $40 million compensation fund for the victims.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.

Other incidents

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

On 9 March 1976, in the worst cable car accident ever, 42 people including 15 children died near Cavalese when the steel cable of their cable car broke.


  1. 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, February 18, 1998.
  2. Le Vittime (list of the names of the victims) by the Comitato 3 Febbraio per la giustizia (February 3rd Committee for Justice), from
  3. Mary Dejevsky, "Cable car pilot not guilty of killings", Independent, The (London), Mar 5, 1999, via FindArticles
  4. Pilot in Fatal Ski Gondola Accident Kicked Out of Casino, Los Angeles Times, November 05, 1999
  5. Jury Sentences Marine in Ski-Lift Incident to Dismissal New York Times, April 3, 1999
  6. Andrea Visconti, "Cermis, patto segreto dietro il processo", la, February 2, 2008.
  7. "America's Obligation in Italy", The New York Times, March 10, 1999
  8. "US Congress decision not acceptable for Cavalese victims' lawyer", Agence France Presse, May 17, 1999
  9. "Families of victims in Italian ski-lift disaster compensated", Agence France Presse, April 26, 2000

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