Italian Police Arrest Three Over Cable Car Accident: Emergency Break Was Intentionally Deactivated

A temporary fix put in place to prevent further interruptions in the funicular service led to the crash that killed 14, including five Israelis, Italian authorities say

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Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, earlier this week.
Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, earlier this week.Credit: ,AP

Police in northern Italy have made three arrests in the cable car disaster that killed 14 people, including two children, after an investigation showed a clamp, intentionally placed on the brake as a patchwork repair effort, prevented the brake from engaging after the lead cable snapped.

The gondola on a cable way connecting the town of Stresa, on the shore of Lake Maggiore, to the nearby Mottarone Mountain, plunged to the ground on Sunday, killing Amit Biran and Tal Peleg-Biran, an Israeli couple studying and working in Italy, alongside their two-year-old son Tom. Tal's grandparents Barbara and Itzhak Cohen, who had come to visit, were killed as well.

The couple's five-year-old son Eitan, the lone survivor, is hospitalized in serious condition.

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Italian authorities arrested the cable car's engineer, the director of the service and the operative head of the service. The Italian public prosecutor, Olimpia Bossi, said that the car's emergency brakes were deactivated to avoid delay in the service, thus when the cable snapped the brakes could not prevent the accident.

Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into suspected involuntary manslaughter and negligence.

Carabinieri Lt. Col. Alberto Cicognani told Sky TG24 that 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 funicular from working.

The clamp was put on several weeks ago as a temporary fix to prevent further interruptions in the funicular service, Cicognani said. The cable car line went back into service on April 26 after a wintertime coronavirus-linked shutdown.

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 until it came to rest against some trees. 

The cable car, which usually takes visitors to a mountaintop view of some of northern Italy's most picturesque lakes, plummeted to the ground and then tumbled down the slope, killing all apart from the 5-year-old Israeli boy.

Stresa Mayor Marcella Severino said it appeared that a cable broke, sending the car careening until it hit a pylon and then fell to the ground. At that point, the car overturned “two or three times before hitting some trees," she said. Some of those who died were thrown from the cabin.

Images from the site showed the crumpled car in a clearing of a thick patch of pine trees near the summit of the Mottarone peak overlooking Lake Maggiore. The car was believed to have fallen around 15 meters (50 feet), according to Italian media.

The plunge on the the Stresa-Mottarone line happened about 100 meters (yards) before the final pylon, said Walter Milan, spokesman for Italy’s Alpine rescue service.

Milan noted that the cable line had been renovated in 2016 and had only recently reopened after coronavirus lockdowns in Italy curtailed travel and forced the suspension of many leisure activities. Milan suggested many families may have flocked to the mountain on a sunny Sunday after months of restrictions.