Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tunisian pilot who prayed as his plane went down jailed in Italy

A pilot accused of praying when he should have been taking emergency measures to avoid a crash in which 16 people died has been sentenced to 10 years in jail by an Italian court.

Captain Chafik Gharby was at the controls of a plane belonging to the Tunisian charter airline Tuninter that crashed in the sea off the coast of Sicily four years ago. The 23 survivors were left swimming for their lives, some clinging to a piece of the fuselage that stayed afloat after the turbo-prop aircraft broke up on impact.

Gharby was at first hailed as a hero for having saved the lives of most of the passengers. But after an investigation, he, his co-pilot, and several Tuninter executives and technicians were charged with a range of offences including manslaughter.

The court in Palermo agreed with prosecutors that the chain of events that led to the crash began when a wrong part was installed in the ill-fated plane, a Franco-Italian ATR 72. A mechanic accidentally fitted an outwardly identical fuel gauge intended for the smaller ATR 42.

The plane took off from Bari, bound for the Tunisian island of Djerba, on 6 August 2005. As it flew over Sicily, its engines slowed to a halt, even though the instrument panel showed the aircraft had enough fuel left for the flight.

The judges accepted the prosecution case that the pilots, instead of making a crash landing on the sea, should have been able to glide the plane to Palermo airport. Instead, Gharby was said to have panicked. In cockpit recordings entered as evidence he was heard calling for the help of "Allah and Muhammad his prophet". His lawyer, Francesca Coppi, said: "Faced with danger, he invoked his god as would any one of us." She described her client as "a broken man" who was "convinced he did everything possible to save as many lives as possible".

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