In episode 119 of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Shelly and Stephanie explore the tragic downing of Itavia 870, a DC-9 that was flying over the Mediterranean Sea on June 27, 1980, with 81 people onboard. About an hour into its flight, Itavia 870 suffered a violent, catastrophic breakup over the sea, killing all 81 people onboard, including 16 children and many families. Just days after the crash, Italian media speculated that a Libyan fighter jet engaged with NATO war planes had mistakenly fired at the passenger plane. Despite Italian and Libyan government denials, the Italian public and its judiciary agencies did not believe the refusal. Multiple investigations followed, first led by the Ministry of Transport and then by a special commission known as the Blasi Commission. In each of those investigations, circumstantial evidence pointed to either a missile strike or onboard bomb as the cause of the crash, but nothing definitive. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s when a formal technical commission was formed with international aviation accident investigation experts, including Frank Taylor of the AAIB, that a final probable cause was issued: someone planted a bomb onboard Itavia 870’s rear lavatory, causing an explosion and subsequent breakup of the plane. However, years of unfortunate coincidences involving the deaths of key witnesses and lost evidence on behalf of the Italian military led to the Italian public not believing in the bomb theory. Ultimately, no one has yet gone to prison for the downing of Itavia 870, and Frank Taylor continued to stand behind the work of his investigative team.
Itavia 870 Heads for Palermo with 81 People Onboard
June 27,1980 was a clear Friday evening, and in the sky over the Mediterranean Sea was Itavia Flight 870 cruising at 29,000 feet (or 8800 m). Onboard the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 are four crew, including the flight crew and two flight attendants, and seventy-seven passengers enroute from Bologna to Palermo, in the Italian region of Sicily. Many of the passengers are either local merchants or family vacationers on their way to holiday destinations. And they would have been relieved to be in the air after having been delayed at Bologna Airport for almost two hours, which was longer than the 90-minute flight.
In the cockpit and at the controls is Captain Domenico Gatti, aged forty-four, and he is assisted by First Officer Enzo Fontana, aged thirty-two, who works the communications and navigational instruments. This is a very experienced flight crew. They are joined by two flight attendants, 39-year-old Paolo Marici, and 21-year-old Rosa De Dominicis. (Fun fact about Rosa: she had graduated from the technical institute for tourism and spoke three languages.)
About an hour into the flight, the First Officer encounters a problem: all the navigational beacons seem to not be getting signals, and since these beacons help guide the plane to Palermo, this problem will require the pilots to get directions from air traffic controllers (or ATC). Helping them navigate, ATC asks Flight 870 to make a turn. As they make this turn, the plane encounters a pocket of heavy turbulence. Though this turbulence poses no jeopardy to the plane, the pilots are concerned about their passengers’ comfort, and so they ask ATC for permission to descend below their current altitude to try and get beneath the turbulence. ATC approves their request to descend to 21,000 feet (or 6400 m). And as they begin to descend, as a bonus surprise, the navigational beacons come back online, which brings some relief back into the cockpit. At this point, the pilots no longer need to contact ATC for anything until they are ready to begin their approach for landing. And with that, the first officer radios to ATC that, “We'll call you for descent, 870.” This is the last complete response that ATC will ever get from Flight 870.
Itavia Flight 870 Experiences Unexpected, Violent Inflight Breakup
Just seconds later, as the sun was setting against a clear blue sky and the plane was passing through 24,000 feet (or 7300 m), the unimaginable happens. The rear bathroom on the right side of the DC-9 explodes at floor level within the cabin and just above the right engine pylon, which holds the engine to the right-wing frame. At the moment of the explosion, the bathroom walls blow outwards in all directions. Immediately, these exploding pieces tear a large hole in the roof and floor of the rear fuselage, while other pieces of projectile strike the right engine’s pylon and cowlings, which are the removable coverings over the plane’s engines, and are used to reduce drag and to cool the engine.
As the shock wave instantaneously continues to move through the cabin in nanoseconds, it causes the skin on the top and the left side of the plane to fold rapidly upwards. Within two seconds from this moment, almost all the top skin on the right side of the plane has peeled off while internal parts of the plane, including the toilet, the sink, seat cushions, seatbelts, luggage, doors, and yes, even some passengers, are swallowed out of the plane.
Immediately following the explosion and initial shockwave, the right engine, damaged by the initial explosion, tears off and breaks away from the fuselage. With the right engine no longer attached to the wing frame and unable to help take the aerodynamic load off the rest of the plane, more and more pieces of the rear fuselage rip off, including even more sections of the top skin, and now the rear floors, as well as the wires and cables within the flooring.
Now, barely anything is holding the tail section to the rest of the plane, until it, too, snaps off from the rest of the forward fuselage, just like someone who snaps a branch in half. When the tail section breaks off, the force of the separation causes the rest of the fuselage to rapidly pitch downward, now like a weighted arrow shooting straight at the sea below. In just a matter of seconds, what remains of Itavia Flight 870 plummets downward at the speed of a rocket, now beyond a vertical position, until it meets the only thing that can stop it: the sea itself. As it strikes the surface of the sea, the powerful impact completely crushes the plane’s nose and cockpit, then compresses and buckles the rest of the forward fuselage and wings. All the while, pieces of the plane that were torn off during the breakup begin to rain down on the surface of the sea. It is here, between the islands of Ponza and Ustica, where Flight 870 comes to a final resting place, and with it, the end of the lives eighty-one people.
Itavia Flight 870 Search Yileds Accident is Unrevivable with all 81 People Gone
Almost instantly, ATC can tell from their radar that Itavia 870 is gone: the single green symbol that represented Flight 870 is now several dots on the screen. Just minutes after the accident, ATC requests a search for the plane, and two Italian Air Force jets are sent to search for any survivors. However, they face poor visibility and are unable to find the plane or any survivors on this first day. On the following morning, the rescue operation reignites and converges at the site of the plane’s last known position, and this time, floating debris is discovered around an area of over 124 square miles (or 200 square kilometers). And soon, any hope of finding survivors disappears as rescuers recover 38 bodies from the sea, which indicates this was not survivable.
Itavia Flight 870 Passengers Included Families, Siblings, Couples Who Died Together
The reference to 81 people dead or 38 bodies recovered does not give us a sense of who the passengers and crew onboard Flight 870 were. So, let’s share some details about them. 32-year-old Luigi Andres was a dentist and on his way to a wedding. 16-year-old Paola Bonati was on her way to vacationing in Sicily. 19-year-old Giuseppe Cammarata had enlisted in the Army and was on his way back home.
Giovanni Cerami was a 34-year-old engineer on his way to visit his wife and children and have a weekend at the sea. And this was a disaster that took with it spouses, siblings, and even whole families who died together. This includes the D’Alfonso family, including Salvatore, his wife Maria Grazia, and their two children, 7-year-old Francesca and 4-year-old Sebastiano. It also includes 10-year-old Vincenzo, who died alongside his 7-year-old little sister Antonella, his 1-year-old baby brother Giuseppe, and his mother, Giovanna. Siblings Maria Marfisi, who was 10, and her 5-year-old baby sister, Tiziana, died together. 23-year-old Antonella Pinocchio died alongside her little brother, 10-year-old Giovanni, who was so excited to be flying with his sister back home – and he also wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. 29-year-old Daniela Valentini, died with her children, Francesco, 2, and Nicola, 6. And maybe the saddest story to consider is 11-year-old Giuliana Supechi, who was just 11 and traveling on Flight 870 by herself. Her parents had separated, and she was on that plane so that she could go move in with her father.
In total, sixteen children die in the crash, ages ranging from one to seventeen, and at least 7 sets of families end up losing both parents and multiple children or at least one parent and multiple children.
Itavia 870 Investigations Kickoff Amidst Backdrop of Terrorism and Wartime Tensions
The investigation that follows will take twists and turns that perhaps no one in Italy was prepared for it to take. The crash of Itavia 870 also happened against a backdrop of a history of terrorism and wartime tensions. During the 1970s and 80s, amidst the Cold War, the Mediterranean Sea was the stage for a lot of conflict. In fact, across the sea from Italy was Soviet-backed Libya, and when the United States declared Libya and its leader at the time, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a global sponsor of terrorism, the countries bordering the Mediterranean witnessed a substantial buildup of NATO and Libyan forces in and above this body of water. So, it was not unusual to hear about light skirmishes between NATO forces and Libya.
It is also important to note that at the time in 1980, unlike many other industrialized nations and even contrary to international standards of the day, Italy had no independent body responsible for the investigation of air accidents, like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the US or the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Board (AAIB.)
Instead, the first investigative acts were conducted by several separate but equally interested parties all working apart, including a collection of prosecutors, Italian civil regulatory agencies, and the Italian military, all of whom had little to no experience in investigating plane crashes.
Initial Investigation into Itavia 870 Explosion Led by Ministry of Transport
The Italian Ministry of Transport, led by Minister Rino Formica, launched the first of these official investigations. Surprisingly, what was not a part of this investigative period was any effort to retrieve most of the plane’s wreckage from the bottom of the Tyrrhenian Sea because it was deemed too costly.
But the Italian public had already made up its mind as to what happened even without the wreckage because of what was already being reported in the press. Just two days after the crash, a major Italian newspaper claims that whistleblowers within various militaries claimed that a missile brought down the passenger jet. And once planted inside the minds of the public and the judicial system within Italy, this theory becomes impossible to refute.
Days After Itavia Flight 870 Downing, Italian Media Points to Missile Theory as Cause
The published account of how a missile could have struck Itavia 870 went like this. During this time, it was common practice for Libyan fighter jets to shadow passenger aircraft so they could evade radar detection as they crossed the sea to receive maintenance in friendly Eastern Bloc nations.
Italy, it was alleged, ignored this practice due to its economic ties with Libya. The Italian media theorized that a Libyan jet was shadowing Itavia 870 that evening when it was then engaged by NATO fighters in the same area, and the passenger plane was caught in the crossfire. And when, just 20 days after the loss of flight 870, the wreckage of a Libyan MiG fighter jet and the body of its dead pilot are found in Southern Italy, the public felt this evidence proved what many in the media had already been speculating about the missile strike.
However, the official Italian report on the Libyan fighter jet crash concluded that the jet was unarmed and concluded that the pilot of the Libyan jet had suffered a heart attack during a training mission, causing the jet to crash. Libyan authorities agreed with these findings, except that they claimed the pilot lost consciousness and crashed instead of dying from a heart attack. Despite the official explanations, some military eyewitnesses claimed that the MiG showed signs of damage from gunfire as if it had been engaged in a skirmish. As a result, the exact circumstances surrounding the crashed Libyan plane remain a considerable source of controversy even today.
Second Theory Arises that Itavia 870 Was Shot Down in Case of Mistaken Identity
And there was another conspiracy theory surfacing at the same time, this one claiming a failed assassination attempt on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. According to the theory, Gaddafi was flying in the area that night but was warned of the assassination attempt and landed safely in Malta. NATO jets, said to be of American or French origin, then mistakenly shot down Itavia 870 instead because it looked like Gaddafi’s plane and was in the location where Gaddafi was scheduled to be flying. Gaddafi’s government and Gaddafi himself promoted the assassination conspiracy and continued to do so until his death in 2011.
With the idea of a military coverup persisting, it certainly did not help that several key records from the time of the accident at various military radar stations were missing. Military officials maintained that there was nothing suspicious about the missing records, but this explanation did not satisfy investigators, especially Rosario Priore, a public prosecutor at the time who was running his own criminal investigation and was questioning various military personnel under oath about their alleged involvement in a coverup of the downed airliner.
NTSB Investigator Joins Formica Investigation and Finda Radar Supports Missile Theory
The Formica investigative commission asked a member of the US’s National Transportation Safety Board (or NTSB) to review the evidence thus far collected, including radar records. In November of that same year, 1980, John Macidull from the NTSB joins the investigation, and he comes up with a startling theory.
Radar records taken from several sources seemed to show very brief blips of objects approaching Itavia 870 at a high rate of speed coming from the direction of the sun, and to the investigator, only a fighter jet could travel that fast. According to Macidull, the aircraft’s movement mirrored a common fighter pilot tactic that allows the pilot to camouflage their attack on an enemy by approaching from the angle of the setting sun. Based on the radar objects, Macidull surmises that the fighter jet likely fired a missile at the DC-9. However, this is only his hypothesis since there was no definitive evidence. And then tests reveal some of the plane’s fragments had explosive TNT materials on them, but the evidence of TNT on plane fragments could also indicate an onboard bomb. But it didn’t matter. The public believes now more than ever that a missile was responsible for the downing of Flight 870 and that there was an active coverup going on.
And that is where the first investigation leaves off: two years after the crash of Itavia 870, the report concludes that an explosion of unknown origin caused the plane to breakup inflight, and that circumstantial evidence exists for either an onboard bomb or a missile.
These conclusions deeply upset the public, who continue to demand the truth, including a group of people who send a letter to the Italian President and demand that the investigation be reopened and that the remaining wreckage of Itavia 870 be brought to the surface.
Blasi Commission Investigation Find Evidence for Both Missile and Bomb
It wasn’t until 1987, seven years after the accident, and five years after the first inconclusive investigation, that a new investigative commission was formed known as the Blasi Commission. Under immense public pressure, the Italian government contracted with a French salvage company to recover the wreckage of the DC-9 from the bottom of the sea. Now, most – but not all – of the wreckage was recovered and brought to an empty hanger in Rome where it was painstakingly reassembled by engineers working for Alitalia, Italy’s largest airline.
One of the most valuable pieces of recovered evidence was the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR). When investigators listen to the final millisecond of the recording, they hear what they believe to be the actual last words of the pilot: “Gua- “, which was believed to be the first syllable of the word “Guarda!” the Italian word for “look!” Admittedly, the recording is unclear due to electronic noise from when the aircraft broke apart. But it begs the question, did the pilot see something approaching the plane?
Italian investigators used the reassembled wreckage to observe key pieces of evidence, including a hole in the fuselage, which could be from a missile, and explosive residue and bits of shrapnel embedded in seat cushions. These materials are also present in the autopsied bodies of passengers. Combined, this evidence once again points to an explosion onboard or near the rear of the aircraft. Ultimately, and to the dismay of the public, the Blasi Commission is unable to agree on the origin of the explosion with evidence in favor of either a missile or a bomb.
(There was also some behind the scenes drama involving two Italian members of the Blasi Commission who first publicly said a missile was responsible and then recanted two years later as the investigation was wrapping up. The reason they recanted allegedly was because they felt pressured by a public who wanted definitive answers and who had already decided a missile was to blame.)
Technical Commission Formed to Lay Foundation for Criminal Charges Against Alleged Itavia 870 Conspirators
By now, a frustrated Italian public and judiciary begin to refer to the crash as the Ustica Massacre, named for one of the islands near the last known position of Itavia 870. But the Blasi Commission is not the end of this investigative storyline. Just wait. By 1990, yet another investigation is launched into the crash.
Unlike the previous investigations, this time an international committee of expert aviation accident investigators are brought in to form a “technical commission” serving under Judge Rosario Priore (remember him, the public prosecutor who tried to use the courts to uncover the truth behind the crash but failed). Judge Priore’s goal in convening the commission was simple, yet unorthodox when it comes to air accident investigations: he intends to use this investigation to form the basis of a criminal indictment against parties believed to either be responsible for the accident or who withheld evidence and obstructed the prior investigations, most notably members of the Italian Military. Priore was dead set on accomplishing as a judge what he had been unable to do during his prosecutorial investigations back in 1980.
World-renowned investigator Frank Taylor leads the technical commission, and he is a veteran air crash investigator from the UK’s AAIB and an investigator for the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing. Taylor and his team found that the previous Blasi Commission hadn’t recovered enough of the aircraft to make any sound judgement on the cause of the accident.
Taylor had helped develop a computer program during the Pan Am 103 investigation, and now he uses it again to produce a more accurate map of the debris field. By 1992, a second series of salvage efforts recovered more than 96% of the aircraft.
Now with the aircraft recovered, Taylor’s team examines the wreckage and other records of the flight. Their findings begin to cast doubt on the missile strike scenario beginning with the radar records of the crash, which had appeared to former investigator John Macidull to show objects approaching the aircraft. However, the technical commission felt the objects were pieces from Itavia 870 after it broke up in flight while other unknown blips on the radar could have simply been random noise. Taylor’s team also noted that the chance that an approaching fighter aircraft would create such a small radar return would also be highly unlikely. As a result, the commission deems the radar evidence inconclusive.
Listening to the CVR during which the pilot supposedly says “look,” investigators conclude this utterance could have been about anything, and on its own did not prove a missile shot down Itavia 870.
Of considerable interest to the team was the physical evidence, and namely, a supposed hole in the aircraft alleged to be the entry point of the missile. It was determined, using markings written on the back of the aircraft’s skin during construction, that these fragments had been misplaced by the first team of Alitalia engineers who reconstructed the wreckage. Moreover, the team found no evidence of an “exit wound” that would point to a missile that had passed through the aircraft.
Technical Commission Finds Onboard Bomb is the Only Cause Supported by Scientific Evidence
In the end, with this new reconstruction of the crash produced by the technical commission, there were no unexplainable radar tracks, no entry or exit points for a missile that passed through the aircraft, no evidence of a collision, and no unexplained foreign material. Additionally, in 1994, the Defense Research Energy laboratory in the UK conducted a series of tests where they detonated a bomb in a DC-9 bathroom. The resulting damage was described as nearly identical to the recovered wreckage of Flight 870. And with that, the technical commission presented their findings to Judge Priore, with the bottom-line conclusion that the only cause of the crash supported by scientific evidence was that a bomb was placed aboard the aircraft in the rear toilet.
Judge Priore immediately dismissed the findings of the technical commission as useless. He asked no additional questions, nor did he give the team an opportunity to defend their work. Judge Priore decided not to publish the technical commission report as part of his investigation. Instead, in his own 5,000-plus-page report, he said he did not know for sure who had caused the deaths of the 81 people on board, but he claimed all investigations to this point had been deliberately obstructed by the Italian military, who had conspired with NATO to cover up the tragedy.
To the technical commission and to Frank Taylor himself, it appeared that the Italian investigators had made up their minds that Itavia 870 was brought down by a missile, and nothing could convince them otherwise.
Taylor went on to defend his team’s findings for years and eventually published details of the investigation in aviation journals. In 2014, during an interview for the series Air Crash Investigation, Taylor stated, “We discovered quite clearly that somebody had planted a bomb there, but nobody on the legal side, it would appear, believed us and therefore, so far as we are aware, there has been no proper search for who did it, why they did it, or anything else. As an engineer and an investigator, I cannot see why anybody would want to consider anything other than the truth.”
Decades After Itavia Flight 870 Tragedy, Families and Courts Still Seek Justice
Despite the findings of the technical report, prosecutors attempted to move forward in court with what little they had in the early-to-mid 2000s. Several Italian Air Force officers and military generals were charged with coverup and obstruction but were later found not guilty or successfully appealed their sentences based on the lack of evidence supporting the charges. To date, no one is in prison for the downing of Itavia 870. And still today, the Italian Judiciary, and much of the Italian public, seems convinced, through a wealth of circumstantial evidence, the unexplained or mysterious deaths of witnesses, and suspicious military actions, that a missile of some unknown origin brought down Itavia 870. In either case, bomb or missile, the true perpetrators of The Ustica Massacre remain unknown after all these years.
In September of 2011, thirty-one years after the tragedy, a Palermo civil tribunal ordered the Italian Government to pay €100 million ($137 million) in damages to the families of the victims of The Ustica Massacre for failing to protect the plane, concealing the truth about the accident, and destroying evidence. In 2013, the Italian Supreme Court upheld this ruling and even went as far as to state that there was “abundantly clear evidence” that a missile brought down the flight.
Itavia Flight 870 Victims Memorialized at Bologna Museum for the Memory of Ustica
While the truth of what happened remains in question, the legacy of Itavia 870 is more concrete. Following the crash, Italy formed its own official investigative body for air accidents, removing responsibility for such investigations from civil prosecutors and regulators, improving the integrity of the process surrounding air accident investigations.
And as the hope for the victims’ relatives to get closure fades away, there is at least one place they can mourn their loved ones. For years, the wreckage of Itavia 870 sat in that same hangar in Rome, but then in 2007, it was carefully placed on a truck and took an 11-hour journey across Italy to Bologna where it has permanently resided ever since in Bologna’s Museum for the Memory of Ustica.
The remains of Itavia Flight 870are part-museum display and part-mausoleum. The wreckage is dimly lit by eighty-one flickering lights and surrounded by 81 black mirrors hiding speakers whispering the thoughts the 65 men and women and 16 children were probably thinking during their last, violent, horrific moments in this world.
To some of the families, knowing that if they could not get answers, at least they could have this memorial. Elena de Dominicis, whose 21-year-old sister Rosa was a flight attendant on Flight 870, said of the fuselage and its haunting display, "Finally, I have a place where I can imagine Rosa ... before there was only the sea."
And THAT is the heartbreaking and frustrating mystery surrounding the crash of Itavia Flight 870.