Little Bits of History

Disaster on the Mountaintop

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 9, 2015
A cable car at Plateau Rosa in Italy

A cable car at Plateau Rosa in Italy

March 9, 1976: The Cavalese cable car disaster takes place. The aerial tramway was descending from Cermis near the ski resort of Cavalese in northern Italy. The cabin or car fell 660 feet down the mountainside and then skid an additional 980 feet before it came to a halt in a field. As it fell, it also brought down the three-ton overhead carriage assembly which fell on top of the car and crushed it. There were 44 people on board, 15 of them children between the ages of 7 and 15. The car attendant was 18-years-old. One body was unaccounted for, but eventually Fabio Rustia was found dead. Fourteen year old Alessandra Piovesana was the only survivor. She grew up to be a journalist and died in 2009 from an acquired illness.

The car had a capacity for 40 passengers or 7,000 pounds. There were 44 occupants at the time of the accident but it was considered to be justified since many of them were children and the weight would have been within limits. Most of the victims were West Germans from Hamburg. There were 21 Germans, eleven Italians, seven Austrians, and one French woman on board. An inquest found that two steel cables had crossed and one severed the other. There was an automatic safety system which could have prevented the disaster but it was turned off. Four lift officials were jailed for their part in the disaster. This has been the worst cable car disaster to date.

This is not the only time disaster struck this ski resort area. On February 3, 1998, a US Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft was flying lower than regulations permitted and cut a cable supporting a gondola. The car fell and twenty people were killed. One of the two American pilots destroyed evidence about altitude and when the Captain and his navigator were tried, they were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. When more facts came to light, they were later found to be guilty of obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer. They were dismissed from the USMC. The incident strained already tense relations between the US and Italy.

Cable cars have been in existence for about a century but remain underutilized. They have great advantages for moving across mountainous terrain, across valleys, and over bodies of water. Their minimally invasive design creates little environmental impact and the ropeways can blend almost imperceptibly with their surroundings (which is also a disadvantage for pilots as noted above). There can be mono-cable systems where there is only one cable that both supports and propels the cable car.  There are also bi-cable systems which have two cables, one supporting the car and one used for propulsion. A tri-cable system uses two cables to support the car and one to propel it. A chairlift is also technically the same sort of transportation system used by skiers to get up to the top of the ski slope.

After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. Before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings. – Roberta Wohlstetter

Law Number XXVI: If a sufficient number of management layers are superimposed on each other, it can be assured that disaster is not left to chance. – Norman R. Augustine

While it will be desirable to achieve planned results, it will be even more important to avoid unplanned disasters. – John Kenneth Galbraith

I mistrust total competence. I’ve always felt life is a series of small disasters we try to get through. – Michael Palin

Also on this day: Glamour Doll – In 1959, Barbie was shown at the American International Toy Fair.
Jean Calas – In 1765, Jean Calas was exonerated, three years after his death.
Ride, Sally, Ride – In 1964, the first Ford Mustang was built.
Teeth – In 1822, a patent for artificial teeth was granted to Charles M. Graham.
True Love – In 1796, Napoleon married Josephine.

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