Compensation of Germans for gondola crash delayed

Senator links payment to claim owed by Germany


WASHINGTON -- The surviving relatives of Germans killed in the cable-car accident in Italy were getting close to receiving compensation from the United States until the issue of the crew killed in an Air Force C-141 StarLifter five months earlier delayed the action.

Twenty people on the cable car, including seven Germans, were killed when a low-flying Marine Corps jet hit the ski gondola's support cable Feb. 3, 1998. Last month, the Senate voted an immediate payment of $40 million, or $2 million per victim.

By a grim happenstance, five months before the gondola accident, Sept. 13, 1997, an Air Force StarLifter cargo plane and a Luftwaffe aircraft collided 35,000 feet over the South Atlantic, off Namibia. On March 31, 1998, the German government said in a report that the German crew was at fault, because its plane was flying the Tupelov 154 eastward at an altitude reserved for westbound traffic.

The crashes were five months and 3,000 miles apart, but both were instant tragedies.

In the Italian Alps, the crew of the plane, a EA-6B Prowler, saw the cables less than a second before impact. People in the car plunged about 360 feet to their deaths. In the midair collision, a crew member on the German plane saw the StarLifter at the last second, and the Americans swore and called for oxygen and flashlights as their plane plunged. Everyone on those planes -- nine Americans and 24 Germans -- was killed.

The two accidents are linked now because late last month, Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, attached an amendment to a catchall spending bill to provide $2 million for each victim of the accident in Italy.

Two days later, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina approached Robb with new language that would bar payment to the German families -- but not the families from Belgium, Poland or Italy -- until the German government settled the claims of the U.S. families.

The Senate did not vote on that suggestion, but Robb accepted it, and it is part of the package that House and Senate negotiators are considering as they iron out their other differences.

"If the U.S. Senate does not look out for the interests of the American servicemen and women, who will?" Thurmond said in a statement. "In this case, it certainly is not the German government."

Rita Wunderlich of Hartmannsdorf, Germany, whose husband was on the cable car, said: "I feel very sorry for these women, because I know what they are going through. But we have been fighting for compensation for a year now, and now people are trying to use us to get paid."

Thurmond wrote to the German ambassador, Juergen Chrobog, who responded in a letter, saying, "It goes without saying that the families of the victims of the crash off the coast of Namibia deserve our deepest sympathy and support."

But Chrobog complained that their lawyers had not filed a claim until March 30. (The lawyers say the Germans did not establish a claims procedure until February.) He added: "I do not think it is helpful to link compensation issues. Nor is it customary in light of the close cooperation of our two countries within the NATO alliance."

Besides, he pointed out, the victims of the accident in Italy were civilians "and, for the most part, the sole providers of their families," and deserved "prompt and unbureaucratic compensation."

But for Monica Cindrich, widow of the StarLifter's pilot, Capt. Gregory M. Cindrich, that added insult to injury.

Cindrich lives in South Carolina near the base where her husband was stationed. She spoke to Thurmond soon after the crash to lobby for the Air Force to install the same anti-collision systems that airliners carry. She contends that there should be no distinction: "Take the word civilian out, take the word military out, and you know what -- you still have victim."

Cindrich has a 4-year-old son. She was pregnant at the time of the crash but lost the baby as a result of the emotional trauma, she said. Her husband's body was not recovered, and she had to fight the Air Force to get a plot at Arlington National Cemetery to bury his flight suit.

After he was declared dead, she said, the Air Force demanded back his last 15 days' pay, leaving her broke because she had just used their checking account to pay the bill on his government credit card.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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