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Hearing Begins for Marines Accused in Italian Cable Car Deaths

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CAMP LEJEUNE — A Marine squadron commander testified today his officers were briefed about altitude restrictions more than a month before a Marine jet sliced a gondola cable in the Italian Alps, sending 20 people to their deaths.

Lt. Col. Richard Muegge was the first witness at the hearing that began today for the pilot and navigator of the EA-6B Prowler.

The hearing, expected to last through the week, will determine whether Capt. Richard Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif., and Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer, 30, of Westbury, N.Y., should be court-martialed for the Feb. 3 tragedy.

After a similar hearing in May, military judge Lt. Col. Ronald Rodgers put off a decision regarding the jet's backseat crew - Capt. William L. Raney, 26, of Englewood, Colo., and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind. - until reviewing the evidence concerning Ashby and Schweitzer.

Rogers' recommendation on whether there should be further action then goes to Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commanding general for Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic, who makes the final decision.

The cable severed by the jet was strung 370 feet above the ground. Muegge testified that all squadron officers were told of altitude restrictions, including a Marine prohibition of flights below 1,000 feet and the Italian government's 2,000-foot restriction in the area where the jet hit the cable.

The restrictions were discussed at an officers' meeting Dec. 15, and in an e-mail Dec. 17, he said.

Information about the altitude restriction was also contained in a guide in the jet's front cockpit, said Muegge. He said the guide was supposed to be updated periodically with information about obstructions crews observed along flight paths.

Asked whose responsibility it was to ensure procedures were followed, Muegge said, ``Ultimately, everything's the pilot's responsibility.''

The four Marines each are charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 20 counts of negligent homicide, as well as charges of destruction of military property, destruction of private property and dereliction of duty. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.

The crew was conducting a low-level training mission in the Italian Alps on Feb. 3 when their EA-6B Prowler severed the cable supporting a ski gondola near Cavalese, Italy. The gondola operator and 19 skiers plummeted nearly 400 feet to their deaths. Ashby managed to return the badly damaged jet safely to the air base in Aviano.

A preliminary investigation conducted by the Marine Corps blamed the crew for the accident, concluding the Prowler was flying too low and too fast.

During the initial round of hearings last month, witnesses testified that the main gauge measuring the Prowler's altitude hadn't worked correctly for weeks. The gondola's cable also wasn't plotted on the map the men were using to navigate.

Prosecutors contend each member of the crew should have known the plane was too low.

Meanwhile, Werner Pichler, owner of a resort hotel near the accident site, said he had tried repeatedly to alert authorities that planes were flying too low. Pichler said no one heeded his warnings. He has come to the U.S. hoping to be able to testify at this hearing; it is unlikely, however, that the court would include him on a roster of witnesses at this point.

Maj. Scott Jack, a Camp LeJeune spokesperson, said he expects the hearing to wind up later this week although he cannot provide an exact date.

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Mark Roberts, Reporter
Edward Wilson, Photographer
Kay Miller, Web Editor

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