Incident changes his life forever; Trial: Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, now facing charges in the deaths of 20 people who fell from a gondola in the Italian Alps, once had high hopes of making the world a safer place.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Joseph Schweitzer graduated from the Naval Academy in 1989, classmates wrote in his yearbook that the Marine Corps-bound lacrosse star would "make the world safe for democracy."

But a year ago, Schweitzer was co-piloting a jet that caused one of the most gruesome peace-time disasters in U.S. military history: the deaths of 20 civilians aboard a ski resort gondola in northern Italy. His otherwise spotless reputation as a serious, almost shy Marine is now stained by accusations he is a reckless killer.

Much attention in the case has focused on pilot Richard Ashby, whose court martial began yesterday. But the Annapolis-trained Schweitzer is being held equally liable. Both Marine captains face the same two-dozen charges; Schweitzer's trial will follow Ashby's.

For Schweitzer, 31, the tragedy carried with it an ironic twist. The Feb. 3, 1998, flight was to be one of his last. A week later, he planned to return to the United States, quit the military and go to law school.

Schweitzer and Ashby, also 31, were part of a NATO-backed squadron patrolling Bosnia. On Feb. 3, they were to make a training flight over the Italian Alps just south of the Austrian border.

Schweitzer was the navigator. He'd hoped to be a pilot since he was little, but imperfect eyesight had dashed that dream. Instead, he became a pilot's right-hand man, who decides where and how the plane flies.

The day before, Schweitzer pored over charts of the Alps. During the flight, on the final leg of the 60-minute exercise, Schweitzer sat in the jet's front right seat, looking down at a chart in his lap. Ashby was flying at least 600 mph, less than 400 feet off the ground. Too fast and too low, investigators would later say.

When Schweitzer saw the gondola cables, he screamed, "Climb, climb, climb." Ashby, though, jerked the jet left and down. Schweitzer heard a thud.

The aircraft soared away. Below it, a gondola car with 20 people aboard fell to earth.

The next day, waiting for Italian police to arrest him, Schweitzer looked north from the military base in Aviano toward the Alps. "I came to the realization this was my Mount Everest," he said later. "I felt hopeless."

A childhood dream

Joe Schweitzer never wanted to be anything but a soldier. When his family moved from Manhattan to Long Island, he met boys who felt the same. They played Army, built forts and pieced together model airplanes they dangled from bedroom ceilings.

There was no explanation for the fascination, no military in the immediate family. His father, Joe Sr., worked at Bell Atlantic.

"I called him Captain America," says Louis Brown, a classmate at the all-boys Chaminade High School in Westbury, N.Y., who also went to the Naval Academy.

Schweitzer once told his mother, Pat: "Mom, if there's a war, I'm going to enlist."

Despite his parents' resistance, he enrolled in the Naval Academy.

"He really believed it all that stuff -- in America and serving your country," says Rich Meade, the academy lacrosse coach. Schweitzer was team captain.

After graduating, Schweitzer married his college sweetheart. In 1993, He became an "electronic counter measures officer" aboard EA-6B Prowlers, a radar-jamming aircraft.

But in 1997, after tours in Asia and Europe, he needed a change. His long tours abroad had led to divorce. He decided to go to law school, to study international relations. Visiting Annapolis that summer, he dined with Meade and another coach. He said he was leaving the Corps, but had been asked to stay six more months.

In August of that year, he was assigned to the Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy.

Six months later, on Feb. 2, 1998, days before the end of his tour, Schweitzer spent the afternoon reviewing Department of Defense maps of the Italian Alps. He'd tell investigators later that none showed a gondola or the Cermis ski resort.

Regardless, Marine investigators and investigation documents, Schweitzer's family and friends, and Italian witnesses agree on one thing: What happened the next day was certainly avoidable.

The game plan was a "low-level training flight." Schweitzer had navigated just one such flight before, though never on the mountainous route through the Trentino Alto Adige Region.

Low-level flights by U.S. planes in Italy typically hugged the contours of the earth, no less than 1,000 feet off the ground. The tactic was good practice for evading enemy radar, and it's one of the more exciting and enjoyable aspects of jet piloting.

Investigators later learned that noise complaints had prompted a new rule banning jets from dipping below 2,000 feet. The directive was found in a flight crew information file, but Schweitzer and the pilot said they never saw it.

As it turned out, the difference in minimum altitude didn't matter, since the accident occurred well below both restrictions.

With Schweitzer sitting beside him, Ashby took off at 2: 35 p.m. from Aviano. Two other officers -- Capt. William L. Raney and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves -- sat in the back of the jet.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, Ashby dropped below 1,000 feet, startling area residents.

" 'It's going to crash,' I thought," recalls Alberto Del Marco, who had been standing outside his house.

About 35 minutes into the flight, visibility became slightly hazy and Ashby decided to switch from one valley to an adjacent valley. The speed limit for jets on low-level routes was 517 mph. Ashby was flying too fast: about 625 mph, according to flight data.

Meanwhile, at 3: 10 p.m., 19 skiers boarded a gondola to begin a mile-long ascent up Mount Cermis. A longtime employee operated the bright yellow gondola car.

Ashby would say later switching from one valley to the next created an optical illusion: it seemed to him the plane was higher than it was. As the plane dipped well below 800 feet, a low-altitude alarm should have beeped. The crew said they didn't hear any beeps.

Ashby saw the bright yellow flash of the gondola in the corner of his eye, and instinctively "bunted" -- he dove left. He missed the gondola car, but the right wing struck two of the three cables supporting it. The cables stretched, then snapped.

Ski resort officials said it took a few seconds for the car to reach the ground.

"They all had the time to realize what was happening," a military trainee with the Guardia di Finanza told the Italian newspaper, La Stampa. "And they had no way out."

Rev. Don Renzo, who was among those who rushed to the scene, said: "I hoped someone would be alive. Instead, one could not tell whether the people extracted were men or women."

Families of the victims -- seven Germans, five Belgians, two Poles, two Austrians and one Dutch -- are seeking $60 million in damages from the United States, though U.S. officials have said Italy may be responsible for compensation under a 1951 NATO agreement.

Beniamino Andreatta, Italy defense minister, blamed the deaths on the Marines' "taste for risk." Others in Italy accused them of trying to fly beneath the cables.

Facing the charges

Back on Long Island, Pat Schweitzer was pulling into her driveway when she heard on the radio of the 20 deaths in Italy. Joe called that night: "Mom, I've been in an accident."

She has tried hard to believe her son when he tells her things will work out in the end, that the truth will come out. "I get my strength from him," she says.

But, according to investigators and Marine prosecutors, the truth is plain: air crew error.

The charges against Schweitzer include involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and obstruction of justice. The obstruction charge stems from a videotape from a recorder found in the cockpit that appeared to have been erased. Both Schweitzer and Ashby face life in prison if convicted.

Schweitzer's lawyer, Dave Beck, says his client and Ashby are being accused of hot-dogging so they can be scapegoats.

Schweitzer's record before Feb. 3, 1998, was clean. No signs of recklessness or breaking rules. Friends say he feels responsible for the 20 lost lives. He wept during a visit to the crash scene last fall. But he's pained, too, that he's been branded a reckless flying cowboy.

In a letter to his grandfather a few months after the accident, Schweitzer wrote: "You never know when in your life you will meet that challenge which will change your life forever."

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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