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Pilot Error Suspected in Zurich Plane Crash

November 15, 1990 GMT

ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) _ Pilot error is suspected in the crash of an Italian jetliner trying to land at Zurich’s international airport, killing all 46 people aboard, including six Americans, authorities said today.

The Alitalia DC-9, arriving on a 50-minute flight from Milan, skimmed treetops before its fiery crash into a wooded hillside on Wednesday night, five miles short of Kloten airport, police said.

Josef Meier, a spokesman for Swiss air traffic control authorities, told a news conference that witness accounts suggested several causes for the crash and that no possible theories, including terrorism, were being ruled out.


But Meier said radar data ″suggest the pilot misjudged his altitude.″ He said the plane was flying about 1,000 feet below the normal altitude during the landing approach.

He said the plane was not yet within reach of an airport radar beacon enabling it to lock onto a landing path.

Radio contact was normal until two minutes before the crash and controllers received no distress signal, officials said.

The Swiss Federal Meteorological Office said visibility at the time of the crash was good - up to 10 miles, with light rain and light winds.

Investigators reported finding one of the two flight recorders, or ″black boxes,″ which track flight data and cockpit conversations and hoped to learn more about the crash’s cause from them.

About 300 police and rescuers worked at the muddy crash site today, salvaging wreckage and retrieving charred bodies for identification.

Officials said all 40 passengers and six Italian crew members were killed. In Rome, a preliminary count by the airline said six U.S. citizens were among the dead, but the passenger list it released gave only last names and first initials without nationalities.

The jet cut a swath into the forest and broke up on impact, witnesses said. Smoking pieces of wreckage, covered with firefighting foam, were strewn around a muddy hillside.

″The plane was burning like a volcano,″ said Hanni Steffen, a resident and medic who rushed to the crash site.

Debris was strewn over an area of 50 by 120 yards, police said.

Alitalia identified the American victims as Karel Forman, Stephen Ritter, John Stuckey, Paul Vaughan, William Briggs and Jerry Bass. It had no further information.


Three of the Americans worked for the Mobil Corp. in Macedon, N.Y.: Briggs, 52, of Newark; Forman, 32, of Clifton Springs, N.Y.; and Vaughan, 38, of Fairport, N.Y. The company provided their ages and hometowns.

A team of Italian investigators sent by Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti arrived early today to help in the inquiry. At Linate Airport in Milan, where the flight originated, officials set up a crisis unit to provide information and take calls from worried families and friends.

Alitalia said the DC-9 was built in 1974 and was last inspected Nov. 4.

Flight commander Raffaele Liberta, 47, was a 20-year Alitalia veteran who had flown more than 10,000 hours during his career.

The last major crash involving an Italian airliner occurred Oct. 15, 1987, when an ATR-42 turboprop of the carrier ATI, an Alitalia subsidiary, crashed near Como on a flight from Milan to Cologne, Germany, killing 37.