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Witness testifies: Ski lift wasn't on flight crew's map

The ski-lift cable that was sliced by a low-flying Marine jet in the Italian Alps, killing 20 people, wasn't on the crew's flight map, an officer testified Tuesday at a hearing for two crewmen.

"There was nothing on the chart," said Capt. Michael Reece, a pilot and the duty officer responsible for monitoring flights at the U.S. air base in Aviano, Italy, at the time of the accident Feb. 3.

Later Tuesday, another flight officer testified that a map in the squadron office was stamped with the words "aerial cable way" but said he thought it was intended as "a general warning." Capt. Scott Roys said the words indicated a spot about 10 to 15 miles from where the warplane hit the cable.

Reece was the first government witness at a hearing to determine whether Capts. Chandler Seagraves, 28, and William Raney II, 26, should be court-martialed for the accident, in which a gondola plunged to the ground. Both were back-seat crewmen in the EA-6B Prowler during the training flight.

Under military law, all members of a unit can be held responsible for an accident. The back seat crewmen do not fly the plane and have an extremely restricted view but are dutybound to speak up if they see the aircraft violating speed, altitude and other mission guidelines.

The two front-seat crewmen _ the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, and the navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, both 30 _ face a similar hearing next month.

As the hearing started, Seagraves' lawyer argued that his client was not in control of the plane and could see only to the sides, above and behind him.

"When the accident initially happened, he thought they had hit a bird," said the lawyer, Capt. Paul Kaplan. "A lack of knowledge _ that's what the facts are going to show here."

He also disputed what he called investigators' "pet theory" _ that the crew was "flat-hatting . . . clowning around."

"The evidence simply doesn't support that," Kaplan said. "The theory that they were trying to fly under the cable just isn't true."

Prosecutors say there was a "cable car club" that crewmen could join by making a dangerous pass under the lift at the ski resorts near the air base.

Investigators said the plane was flying well below the minimum 1,000 feet at an air speed faster than allowed. The cable was at about 370 feet.

Reece also said a warning tone should have sounded if the plane dipped below its prescribed altitude and all four crew members should have heard it and alerted each other.

The crew was shaken when it returned to Aviano, Reece said.

"They seemed in shock," he said. "None of them had much color in their faces."

The crew is based at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station near Camp Lejeune. When the hearings are completed, the military judge will recommend whether the crewmen should be court-martialed.

All four crew members face 20 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. The maximum sentence for each charge is 20 years in prison. They also are charged with destroying military and civilian property and dereliction of duty.

_ Information from Reuters was used in this report.