Image: Plane crash
AP file
Rescuers search for clues in October in the Amazon jungle after two planes collided Sept. 29, killing 154 people.
updated 12/8/2006 3:12:30 PM ET 2006-12-08T20:12:30

Federal police Friday charged two U.S. pilots involved in a collision with a Brazilian jet that killed 154 people, and if convicted, they could face up to 12 years in prison.

Joseph Lepore, 42, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Paladino, 34, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., were questioned by police for six hours and then allowed to pick up their passports and leave Brazil, but they must return for their trial.

The two pilots told police they would reply in court, and did not speak to media after questioning.

Police had seized their passports after the Sept. 29 crash to prevent them from leaving the country, and they had been staying in a hotel on Rio's Copacabana Beach. But a Brazilian court released their passports this week, saying there were no legal grounds for restricting their movements.

Lepore and Paladino were piloting a Brazilian-made Legacy executive jet when it collided with a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 heading south over the Amazon jungle. All 154 people aboard the Gol flight were killed, while the Legacy landed safely with all seven people aboard unharmed.

Robert Torricella, an attorney for the company that owns the Legacy, said the decision to charge them "without ever hearing their testimony is incredibly absurd."

The Legacy, owned by ExcelAire of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., was heading northwest on its maiden voyage from the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos to the United States when the accident occurred at an altitude of 37,000 feet, usually reserved for flights headed in the opposite direction.

Transcripts suggest the Legacy had been authorized by the tower in Sao Jose dos Campos to fly at 37,000 feet to Manaus, although that contradicted the plane's original flight plan.

Warning systems failed
Warning systems failed on both planes before they collided, an Air Force investigator said last month.

Air traffic controllers believed the Legacy was flying at 36,000 feet at the time it collided with Gol Flight 1907, Brig. Gen. Luiz Carlos da Silva Bueno recently told a Senate committee.

But "at departure, air traffic control cleared the Legacy to Manaus at 37,000 feet," Torricella said at the time. "Absent a contrary clearance by air traffic control, the Legacy was required to remain at that altitude."

The lawyer for the pilots, former Justice Minister Jose Carlos Dias, said the pilots picked up their passports and were taken to Guarulhos airport for a charter flight to the United States.

Dias called the police decision "biased" and "discriminatory," and said police were simply "looking for someone to blame for the crime." He added that if the factors leading to the collision were considered unintentional, the maximum penalty would be only four years in prison.

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