FLOWERS AND A CARD ADDRESSED TO VICTIM LAY AT ENTRANCE OF HOUSE
Andreas Meier  /  Reuters
Flowers and a card addressed to the victim lay at the entrance of a house in Kloten, Switzerland, on Wednesday, where a 36-year-old air traffic controller was stabbed to death.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/26/2004 10:25:20 AM ET 2004-02-26T15:25:20

Swiss police have detained a man who lost his wife and two children in a 2002 air crash as a suspect in the killing of a Zurich air traffic controller on duty the night of the midair collision, officials said Thursday.

The suspect lost his wife, daughter and son in the crash over Germany, officials told a news conference, but they declined to give his nationality.

Dozens of Russian children bound for a holiday were among the 71 people killed in the crash.

Police had said revenge might have been a motive for the killing of the 36-year-old Danish controller, who was stabbed on his doorstep Tuesday and bled to death in front of his family.

The 48-year-old suspect was detained Wednesday afternoon and is still in custody, officials said.

Suspect ‘denied having done the deed’
“He was calm, he denied having done the deed,” Zurich prosecutor Pascal Gossner said.

Image: Downed Russian plane
Sean Gallup  /  Getty Images file
The Russian plane crashed in July 2002 in the town of Ueberlingen, Germany.
Officials said the man first aroused suspicion when he came to Switzerland for a memorial service on the first anniversary of the crash and behaved oddly.

Police have said the suspect was a burly man who spoke “broken German” and might have been from Eastern Europe.

The dead controller, who has not been named, was in charge of traffic over Lake Constance late on July 1, 2002, when a holiday charter collided in the darkness with a cargo jet above the town of Ueberlingen.

Air accident investigators have said the controller told the pilot of the Bashkirian Airlines plane to descend when its onboard collision warning equipment was telling it to climb.

The pilot followed the instructions of the controller, which put the jetliner on collision course with the DHL cargo plane, which also was descending in accordance with its collision-avoidance equipment.

The Dane was placed on medical leave after the crash. He was later allowed to return to work but given other duties.

In an interview with a German magazine two weeks after the accident, he expressed his sorrow for the crash. “As an air traffic controller, it is my task and duty to prevent such accidents,” he told Focus.

Skyguide, the Swiss company for the which the air controller worked, said it was appalled by the slaying and that its employees “were in shock.”

Company reports receiving no threats
Skyguide chief Alain Rossier told a news conference Wednesday that the company had received no threats after the collision. Investigators are trying to establish, however, whether the controller himself may have received any threats.

It said that for safety reasons it had temporarily reduced by 40 percent the number of planes it is allowing into the air space it controls because of the impact of the slaying on the other air traffic controllers.

The results of the German government investigation into the crash are to be released at the end of March. Joerg Schoeneberg, spokesman for the investigators, said the stabbing would not affect the timing of the report because the air traffic controller had already been interviewed extensively.

He said, however, that he expects the release of the report to be delayed because officials are tied up investigating other air incidents in Germany.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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