The Ustica Massacre – Itavia Flt #870

On June 27, 1980, the Italian airliner left Bologna, Italy for Palermo at 8:08 pm with four crew members and 77 passengers. Messages retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder appeared normal early in the flight with good radio communications. Control tower monitoring was consistent until the plane was some 80 miles southwest of Naples when no further contact was made. Approximately one hour after departure, the DC-9 crashed and sank in the depths of the Tyrrhenian Sea near the small island of Ustica. Other than housing prisoners of the Fascists during the war, and criminals in the Mafia in the 1950’s, not much else was known about Ustica or its estimated 1300 inhabitants until this disaster.

A brief search and rescue attempt by two Italian Air Force jets was unsuccessful, poor visibility given as the reason. Years went by until 1987, when the Italian government reopened the investigation, which had produced few results up to then. From the recovery of the flight data recorder and most of the wreckage, their technician Luigi Di Stefano was able to reconstruct the aircraft. He also provided a photograph of the reconstruction, which clearly shows a gaping hole just behind the forward door and a matching one on the opposite side. This evidence added even more credence to the popular theory of a missile impact.

In 1989, Senator Pellegrino of the Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism issued an official statement of a terrorist attack in a deliberate act of war. This seemed logical, as Italy had been through a series of bombings in the 70’s, and the incident occurred just one month before the disastrous attack in the city of Bologna. Others also came to the same conclusion based on a report released later in 1994 stating that a bomb had been planted on Flt 870. Then too, there had been a delay of over 2 hours in the plane’s departure, which certainly would have been enough time to set an explosive device.

The investigation continued into the 1990’s, and in August 1996, a press release indicated that Italian government officials were in discussion with NATO, which leads us to wonder why NATO was so interested in the loss of a civilian aircraft. A representative for the victims’ families, Daria Bonfietti, insists that the disaster was purposely covered up by the Italian air force and the political regime at the time. In any event, the majority of the media agreed that the plane was inadvertently shot down by a missile.

Other explanations for the crash were investigated, which included the possibility of Italian, French, and US aircraft participating in a routine training exercise in the area. More disturbing reports by the media, however, suggested a conspiracy by NATO members, which included the US, France, and Italy, to bring down an aircraft carrying the Libyan leader Gadafi, although he denied being in the airspace at the time. Radar tracking reports released in 1997 showed at least 7 warplanes in the area at the time of Flight 870’s disappearance. The wreckage of a Libyan fighter jet, found in the Calabria region of southern Italy just 21 days after the crash, adds substance to these reports. It is possible that the Itavia airline came within the firing range of a missile intended for the Libyan plane. Most aviation experts agreed that the extensive damage to the airplane indicated a missile impact. In any event, there is no question that military aircraft were in the area for some purpose. Certainly, the civilian airline should have been alerted of their activities and perhaps been able to avoid the disaster that occurred.

Rumors of conspiracy continued for some time as more strange events added to the mystery. The French ship involved in the search had released the recovered parts of the aircraft, but only to the US, and important radar reports were removed from the investigation. Several prominent political figures, Itavia employees and pilots, and Italian Air Force pilots died unexpectedly; some committed suicide and others were apparently targeted by terrorists and unknown assailants. Was this a well-planned cover-up, and one about to be exposed? Although several Italian generals were later indicted for obstruction of justice, they were eventually cleared. Other more serious charges of treason were also dismissed in 2007; the obvious grave misconduct was apparently never punished, nor was the mystery solved.

In June of this year, 2008, the Italian government remained determined to pursue the matter and decided to reopen the case of Itavia Flt 870. Papers with a claim for damages were served to the French president in July 2008, whose warplanes they held responsible for downing the aircraft.

Accessible from Palermo by ferry service, the primary attraction on Ustica for tourists today is the pleasure of scuba diving in its natural sea preserve. Relatively few visitors will remember or attach much significance to the disaster of Itavia Flt 870. The Italian government, however, established a Museum for the Memory of Ustica in Bologna in June 2007. The reconstruction work of Luigi Di Stefano and objects recovered that belonged to the passengers are included in the exhibits. All the personal items are kept in a wooden box, covered with black plastic, and a book of photographs and pertinent information is available for visitors to the Museum. The exact number of people who died in the massacre is used throughout the impressive display with 81 large hanging lights and mirrors. Eighty-one loudspeakers add a dramatic, but somber, effect in various messages to visitors; e.g., “when I will arrive, I will go to the sea.”

(Note: Itavia Airline, a successful company in the 1960’s, ended its operations after the Ustica disaster.)

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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Comments (3)

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  1. PJDS says:

    I am currently writing a book about this and wonder if you have any further information Sharon?

    Thank you very much

  2. Sharon says:

    Hi PJDS, I just read your comment on this article. It’s been a while, but would be interested in hearing more about your book. I don’t have any more information to provide, but if you like, you could update me here with a link or contact to what you’re writing!

  3. RR says:

    It’s a great relief, after another decade, to finally see the real contributing factors to this crash. According to a 60 Minutes story over a decade ago, I could have been directly implicated in this crash. At that very hour, I as a watch officer onboard of a US Naval vessel inport at Naples. According to the earlier reports, my ship, under my watch, was guilty of operating disrupting radar under an authorized maintenance activity. This was logged. This log would have been signed by me. These formerly classified details might have stood in between my innocence and any accusations that could have been advanced at an earlier time.

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