U.S. military plane cuts gondola line in Italy, 20 dead

TRENTO, Italy (AP) — A U.S. military plane on a low-level training flight over the snowy Alps sliced through a cable-car line, Tuesday, sending a gondola full of skiers crashing hundreds of feet to the ground. At least 20 people inside the car died.
The car was flattened by the 240-to-300-foot drop. It “opened up like a cardboard box,”one police official said, and bodies were in pieces.
Officials at the U.S. air base in Aviano in northern Italy, where the Marine EA-6B Prowler was based, said all low-level missions by U.S. military aircraft in Italy have been suspended.
The pilot and his three-member crew returned safely to Aviano, 60 miles east of the resort, said Brig. Gen. Tim Peppe, commander of the base’s resident 31st fighter wing. The plane sustained minor tail damage.
Peppe, speaking at a news conference at Aviano, did not speculate on a cause, though he discounted engine trouble.
The line’s other gondola was heading down at the time and the accident left it stuck and dangling. Rescuers pulled out its operator, the only person aboard.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the pilot “was apparently unaware that he had struck a cable or injured anyone.”
The accident occurred at 3:15 p.m. local time under sunny skies at a ski resort in the Val di Fassa area of the Dolomite Mountains near Trento. The cable car was traveling from the town of Cavalese, 80 miles northeast of Trento, to the top of Cermis mountain, site of a popular local ski resort.
The scene was near the spot where a 1976 accident on the same gondola lift killed 42 people. The accident was blamed on operator error.
Aviano, about 62 miles east of the accident scene, is the largest U.S. air base in Italy, with nearly 6,000 military and civilian personnel. It has played a major role in NATO intervention efforts in Bosnia, and has hosted President Clinton for several visits to U.S. military personnel.