On the fine, clear summer’s night of June 27, 1980, Itavia Flight 870 was on a routine flight from Bologna, Italy, to Palermo, Sicily. Suddenly, the plane vanished from radar and plunged into the Tyrrhenian Sea, near the island of Ustica. All 81 passenger’s – 68 adults and 13 children – were killed as the plane broke apart upon impact. Over the last 32 years, there have been many theories about the cause of the crash and the controversial case crawled at a snail’s pace through investigations, military tribunals and court hearings. Finally, last week, Italy’s highest criminal court ruled the Italian Government’s Ministries of Defense and Transportation Ministries would have to pay compensation to some of the victim’s families. The court found there was “abundantly clear” evidence a missile caused the crash of Flight 870.
Although the court ruled on the cause of the crash and awarded compensation to some of the families, the ruling failed to answer the one essential question about the disturbing case; who was responsible for bringing down the plane? Andrea Purgatori, the Italian investigative journalist who wrote a book about the crash and co-authored the film, The Rubber Wall, about the investigation, made a witty and appropriate statement about the court’s decision:
“It’s like the O. J. Simpson affair, where he got off in criminal court but was found guilty in a civil procedure and had to pay damages.”
There have been many theories over the years about the cause of the crash. The Italian Government first suspected a terrorist bomb might have been placed in the aircraft’s lavatory, but no group has ever come forward to claim responsibility. Italy was in the midst of a terrorist war at the time, and just five weeks later, the Bolgona train station was bombed, killing 85 people. The bombing was blamed on far right, neo-fascists, although this case is also riddled with controversy.
During the last three decades, there have been several sensational prosecutions stemming from the crash of Flight 870. Four high ranking Italian Generals were tried for treason and obstructing investigations and several Air Force officers were investigated for wiping clean military flight tracks and radar scans on the night of the crash. However, no charges were filed against the officers and the Generals were all acquitted.
Perhaps the most sensational theory about the crash of Flight 870 involves a NATO plot to assassinate Libyan dictator Qaddafi, who was rumored to be flying over the Mediterranean on the night of June 27, 1980. According to theory, Qaddafi’s Soviet made Tupolev jet was flying in the slipstream of Flight 870 to avoid detection by Italian military radar, when two French Mirage fighters, operating under orders from NATO, were dispatched to rid the world of an annoying madman. One of the fighters launched a missile at Qaddafi, but the projectile went astray, struck the Italian passenger plane, and Flight 870 was blown to bits.
While the story sounds like something out of a Hollywood spy movie, the misfired missile theory gained credibility when Qaddafi’ was overthrown and the files of the Libyan Secret Police were opened. Amid the reports of terrorist plots, murders, assassination of rivals, and sadistic torture of political prisoners, a file was discovered detailing the entire sordid affair of Flight 870, including the missile attack that struck the Italian aircraft.
The existence of such a file is damning in its own right, but contained in the report was information that the Italian SISMI, the nation’s secret service, tipped off the Libyan dictator about the plot to bring down his jet. According to the file, Qaddafi’s pilot was able to divert the jet at the last minute and the French pilots actually fired on a Libyan MIG sent to protect Qaddafi. This may sound far fetched, but we should remember that in 1986, Italian politician Bettino Craxi warned Qaddafi that American F-111’s were about to bomb his compound in Tripoli, thus saving the Libyan leader’s life.
There are a few other rather nasty details surrounding this case. According to an Italian television investigation of the case, 36 individuals associated with the crash investigation have died under mysterious circumstances, including one man who slipped on a banana peel in a subway station and another who was run over by a tricycle. In 2008, Francesco Cossiga, who was Prime Minister of Italy at the time of the crash, told a journalist Flight 870 was shot down by the French Military. Cossiga died two years later of a respiratory infection.
Even with the decision of the High Court to order the Italian Government to pay compensation to families of the crash victims, no one has been named as the responsible party in the death of 81 human beings. The Italian Government was only found liable for not providing proper radar protection to Flight 870. Despite the court’s opinion that an errant missile caused the crash, we still have no legal ruling on who murdered the 81 helpless passengers of Itavia Flight 870.