Parents say son is taking fall for Marines in gondola crash

Published: Sunday, June 14 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Lois Seagraves clutches a photo and a poem from her son, Chandler, and longs for a time when her biggest worry was what to do with the latest stray he had brought home.

"He was always dragging in animals," she said. "And when he knew I was baking cookies, the door would swing open and a dozen kids would be standing there."The kindhearted boy who wanted to be a veterinarian followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Marines in 1993.

And on Feb. 3, he called from Italy and left a message on the answering machine at his parents' locksmith business in Nineveh, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis.

"I don't know if you've heard anything. There was an accident. I'm all right, but we'll talk about it later," he said.

Then Seagraves and her husband, Bill, saw television news reports about a Marine jet that struck a ski lift cable in the Italian Alps, sending a gondola full of skiers crashing to the ground. Twenty people were killed.

"Of course, all kinds of things go through your mind," she said. "You wanted to be there to get ahold of him and tell him it would be all right."

On Monday, they will take a seat behind Capt. Chandler Seagraves, 28, in a courtroom at Camp LeJeune, N.C., for a round of hearings at which a military judge is to recommend whether Seagraves and his three crew mates should face courts-martial on 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Italian officials said they agreed with the U.S. military conclusion that the accident was caused by crew error. "The disaster occurred because of an obvious violation of the rules by the crew," Defense Ministry Undersecretary Massimo Brutti said in March.

If the crewmen are convicted of 20 manslaughter charges each, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

"They have basically hung these four young men out to dry," said Bill Seagraves, a retired Marine pilot. "Our son told us the best thing that could have happened would have been for the four of them to die so the Marines wouldn't look bad."

Seagraves' lawyers have told him not to speak with reporters.

The EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming aircraft, was piloted by Capt. Richard Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif. Sitting next to him was the navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 30, of Westbury, N.Y.

Seagraves and Capt. William Raney II, 26, of Englewood, Colo., were behind them in a separate cockpit, assigned to operated the jamming equipment.

Seagraves has said he and Raney couldn't have done anything to prevent the tragedy.

Prosecutors, however, contend each member of the crew should have known the plane was too low on its flight through the Alps from Aviano Air Base.

The Marine Corps had imposed a 1,000-foot minimum altitude on the route the Prowler was following. The plane struck the ski lift cable about 370 feet above the ground.

During an initial round of hearings last month, witnesses testified that the Prowler's radar altimeter - the plane's main gauge of altitude - hadn't worked correctly for weeks. And the ski lift cable wasn't plotted on the map the men were using.

Lois Seagraves said her son keeps a list of the names of the 20 people killed.

"People have portrayed this as that they were playing around," Lois said. "That's not the truth. Any time he mentions those 20 people, he gets choked up."

Her husband believes it was an accident and that their son and the other three Marines face the possibility of criminal charges for political reasons.

"I see my country sidestepping its responsibility for the purposes of appeasement. They don't want to lose bases in Italy," Bill Seagraves said.

"The people in the Marines are still some of the best people you will ever meet," he said. "It's the system that has stumbled. If my son or daughter right now said they wanted to go into the military, I would have second thoughts - and that was my life."

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