3 arrested in Italy cable car crash that killed 14 people

Wreckage of a fallen cable car
Rescuers gather by the wreckage of a cable car that plunged to the ground in northern Italy on Sunday.
(Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico Piemontese)

Police in northern Italy arrested three people early Wednesday in the cable car disaster that killed 14 people after an investigation showed that a clamp, intentionally placed on the brake as a patchwork repair, prevented the brake from engaging after the lead cable snapped.

Prosecutor Olimpia Bossi hypothesized that the operators of the sightseeing ride, which had reopened after a wintertime coronavirus closure, used the jerry-rigged clamp to avoid having to shut the attraction for more extensive, “radical” repairs that were needed.

Bossi said it still wasn’t clear why the lead cable broke or whether it was related to the brake problem. But she said that the intentional deactivation of the brake, done several times over recent weeks for a persistent problem, prevented the brake from doing its job when the cable snapped.


After the lead cable snapped Sunday, the cabin reeled back down the line until it pulled off entirely, crashed to the ground and rolled over down the mountainside before coming to rest against some trees. Fourteen people were killed; the lone survivor, a 5-year-old Israeli boy whose parents, brother and two great-grandparents were killed, remains hospitalized.

Carabinieri Lt. Col. Alberto Cicognani said at least one of the three people questioned overnight admitted to what happened. He said the fork-shaped clamp had been placed on the brake specifically to prevent it from engaging because it was braking spontaneously and preventing the cable cars from working.

The cable car line reopened April 26 and was bringing sightseers to the top of the Mottarone peak overlooking Lake Maggiore on the first sunny Sunday since then. It was still in place Sunday morning, Cicognani told Sky TG24.

A historic cable car ascending the block-long Angels Flight railway suddenly plummeted down its steep track Thursday in downtown Los Angeles, slamming into a second cable car and killing an 83-year-old New Jersey man.

Feb. 2, 2001

“Because of a malfunction, the brake was continuing to engage even when it wasn’t supposed to,” Cicognani told Sky. “To prevent the cabin from halting during the transport of passengers, they chose not to remove the [clamp] that blocked the emergency brake.

“In this way, the brake couldn’t function, and this brought about the fact that, when the cable broke, the cabin fell backwards,” he said.

Sky and LaPresse news agency identified the three people arrested as the owner of the cable car service, the company’s director and the service chief.


Bossi said the deactivation of the brake was clearly designed as a stopgap measure to allow the line to continue operating. Bossi told reporters that investigators believed the stopgap was used with “the full knowledge” of the cable car company owners.

As a result, the arrests turned public horror over Sunday’s disaster into outrage, given that it appeared to have been an entirely preventable tragedy.

Already, the mayor of the hometown of one of the victims announced that the city would pursue legal action against those responsible, saying it would present itself as an injured party in the civil portion of any possible prosecution.

“The news unfortunately is showing a broad plane of responsibility and guilt by omission,” Diamonte Mayor Ernesto Magorno said in a statement.

The developments in the investigation came as doctors at Turin’s Regina Margherita pediatric hospital reported that the sole survivor of the disaster, 5-year-old Eitan Biran, had begun to open his eyes after they gradually brought him out of sedation.

Biran suffered several broken bones in the crash. An aunt who was not in the cable car is with him at the hospital.

The Biran family had been living in Italy. On Wednesday, members of the area’s Jewish community attended a prayer ceremony for the victims.