Looking Back at Linate

 

October 8, 2002 - Italy Crash Anniversary Marked


MILAN, Italy  - To a world still reeling from Sept. 11, the fiery collision of an airliner and a small jet at Milan's airport looked at first like a terrorist attack.

But the flames were barely extinguished and the 118 bodies extracted from the wreckage when it became apparent that Italy's worst civil-aviation disaster wasn't the result of a suicide strike - but a horrifying combination of human error, weather and other factors.

On Tuesday, the first anniversary of the crash, traffic at Linate airport came to a standstill for a few minutes as relatives of the victims laid white roses on the tarmac while a bugler played ``Taps.''

``It's very painful,'' said Josh King, whose younger sister, Jessica, from the Los Angeles area, was killed in the crash. ``It was so easily preventable.''

Among those present was an Italian baggage handler, brought by ambulance from the hospital where he is still recovering from severe burns suffered in the disaster on Oct. 8, 2001.

On that foggy fall morning, a Cessna business jet taxied down a wrong path and onto the runway of a Scandinavian Airlines System MD-87 jetliner accelerating for takeoff.

The two aircraft collided, and the jetliner swerved into a baggage-handling hangar, shearing through two concrete pillars and triggering the collapse of the hangar's roof.

All 104 passengers and six crew aboard the SAS jet bound for Copenhagen, four ground workers and the four people on the Cessna perished.

The dead included Italians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians, a Romanian, a Briton, a South African and King, who had U.S.-British citizenship.

In July, Italy's national air safety agency issued a report saying many things went wrong besides the Cessna's wrong turn.

Miscommunication between the Cessna's pilot and Linate's control-tower was one error, said Cmdr. Adalberto Pellegrino, an official of the agency.

``The communication was in English and Italian,'' as opposed to aviation standards that only English be spoken, Pellegrino said Monday. And, despite the poor visibility, control tower operators failed to ask the Cessna to read back his instructions to make sure they were understood.

Fog at the airport, where the ground radar had been taken out of operation while a new system was to be installed, aggravated the situation.

Confusing signs on the runway also were cited.

``It wasn't just the signs or some other factor, but a combination of factors,'' said Milan Prosecutor Giuliano Turone, whose office has asked for the indictment of 11 people on charges of manslaughter and causing a disaster through ``grave negligence.''

Among the 11 are control tower personnel as well as officials from the company that runs Milan's Linate and Malpensa airports, the national agency for air traffic control and the national agency for civil aviation.

A hearing on the indictment request is expected next month.

After an outcry over the lack of functioning ground radar, the system went into operation a few months after the crash. 

But little else has been done, despite the safety agency's findings in July and a parliamentary commission's call for an overhaul of Italy's myriad of air-transport agencies which sometimes have overlapping jurisdictions.

The head of the company that runs Linate and Malpensa airports, Giorgio Fossa, recently called the crash ``absurd'' and ``avoidable.''

``All that needed to be done that morning was that all the required safety rules be respected,'' Fossa said in an interview with the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

Josh King, who now lives in Milan, said the death of his sister, a linguist with a budding career in hotel management in Copenhagen and a fiance in Milan, has been especially hard on their father.

On the eve of the anniversary, Jack King stroked a button he had made out of a photo of the smiling face of his daughter.

``Jessica died halfway across the world in a place he'd never been to for reasons we don't understand,'' said Josh King, who has been demanding accountability for those responsible.
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