BRASILIA, Brazil — Prosecutors could charge two American pilots of an executive jet with manslaughter following the high-altitude collision with a Brazilian jetliner that apparently led to a crash that killed all 155 people aboard, federal police said Wednesday.
Police seized the passports of pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, both from New York State. The two were not arrested, but cannot leave the country.
Lepore and Paladino were piloting the Brazilian-made Embraer Legacy 600 when it collided with a brand-new Boeing 737-800 above the Amazon rain forest near Peixoto de Azevedo in Mato Grosso state, some 1,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
Gol airlines Flight 1907 crashed, killing all 155 aboard. The Legacy was damaged, but landed safely at an air force base.
Mato Grosso’s acting federal police director, Geraldo Pereira, said the Federal Prosecutor’s Office had ordered an investigation into “the possible commission of a crime.”
“We will start investigating if the two pilots caused the accident and if they are considered guilty, they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter,” Pereira said.
Lepore and Paladino underwent questioning and routine physical tests in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday and did not talk to journalists.
Mato Grosso state prosecutor Adriano Roberto Alves wants to question the two, as well as air controllers and other passengers of the Legacy, his press office said Wednesday.
It said Alves will rely on police investigations to decide whether criminal charges will be filed.
The air force said both jets were equipped with a modern traffic collision avoidance system, which monitors other planes and sets off an alarm if they get too close.
But Pereira said the Legacy’s transponder, which automatically transmits electronic signals that communicate a plane’s location, may not have been operating.
“Preliminary investigations indicate that the pilots may have turned off the transponder, that they knew the risks they were running and nevertheless they took certain attitudes that endangered the lives of people,” he said.
Judge Tiago Souza Nogueira de Abreu, who ordered the investigation, told the government news service Agencia Brasil that “the hypothesis of a failure by the crew is not discarded.”
Officials have told local news media that air traffic controllers had ordered the jetliner to maintain an altitude of 37,000 feet while the Legacy was supposed to be at 36,000 feet.
U.S. journalist Joe Sharkey, who was on the Legacy, wrote in the New York Times that shortly before the crash, he saw an altitude display reading 37,000 feet.
The Legacy was making its inaugural flight from the southern Brazilian city of Sao Jose dos Campos to the United States, where it had been purchased by ExcelAire Service Inc., based in Long Island, New York.
The company “has never been involved in an accident since its founding in 1985,” ExcelAire spokeswoman Lisa Hendrickson said by phone on Wednesday. “Both pilots were captain-qualified to fly the Legacy.”
Hendrickson told the newspaper Newsday that Lepore, a commercial pilot for more than 20 years from Bay Shore, N.Y., had logged more than 8,000 hours of flight time while Paladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., has more than 6,400 hours of flight time and has been a commercial pilot for a decade, she said.
Four U.S. experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Brazil to help with the investigation, the National Civil Aviation Agency said Wednesday. Observers from Boeing and Embraer also were taking part.
Among those killed in the crash of the Gol jet was U.S. citizen Douglas Hancock, 35, of Missouri. He was in Mato Grosso for business and was returning to Rio de Janeiro where he lived, his father, Paul Hancock, told the Southeast Missourian newspaper.
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