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Diplomacy After Tragedy: Responding to the Cavalese Incident

When a disaster strikes somewhere in the world, the U.S. government often springs into action quickly, often offering critical aid or technical assistance to jumpstart the recovery. The international relations community often refers to this as “disaster diplomacy,” and it can have beneficial impacts. For example, after a successful Western-led response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the United States’ disapproval rating went down by more than 30 percentage points.

The Cavalese valley, where the tragedy took place. | Wikimedia Commons
The Cavalese valley, where the tragedy took place. | Wikimedia Commons

“Disaster diplomacy” takes on a new meaning, however, when the United States itself is responsible for causing a tragedy. In such cases, it must work with survivors and the host government to express its condolences, convey the measures it will take to ensure the disaster never happens again, and convince the public it can still be trusted.

Eric Terzuolo was a political-military counselor in Italy when such a tragedy struck. On February 3, 1998, a U.S. Marine plane flying recklessly snapped through a ski lift in the town of Cavalese, killing twenty people. For the next two and a half years, the U.S. Embassy worked to compensate the victims in a court of law and to repair its image in the court of public opinion.

Terzuolo had served in Italy from 1985 to 1989; he returned to the country for a second tour between 1997 and 2001. He also served in Paris, Prague, and the Hague, among others, and retired from the Foreign Service in 2003.

Terzuolo was interviewed by Mark Tauber starting on December 14, 2017. You can read his oral history HERE.

Drafted by Kenrick Foster

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Excerpts:

“[The Marine aircraft] cut the wire holding up a gondola with about 20 people in it. The gondola goes crashing to the ground. Twenty people [were] killed.”

           
A view from Cermis mountain in winter. | Wikimedia Commons
A view from Cermis mountain in winter. | Wikimedia Commons

A Tragedy to Start the Tour: The Italy tour was dominated frankly by an episode that was in itself very, very tragic and awful and emotionally draining and physically draining. It was February of ’98, so about five or six months after we had arrived. We had this episode in which a U.S. Marine Corps aircraft on a training mission in a ski area in northeast Italy….

Q: Oh, now I remember!

TERZUOLO: Yes. It cut the wire holding up a gondola with about 20 people in it. The gondola goes crashing to the ground. Twenty people [were] killed. This issue basically would then consume my life, really for about two-and-a-half years. As you can imagine, it’s something with huge ramifications, not the least of which are the particular circumstances of the accident, which to my mind showed inexcusable negligence on the part of the aircrew. This was a very multifaceted problem. Yes, it’s a public relations disaster and, frankly, not helped particularly by our ambassador, who was a nice gentleman. I liked him. I got along with him. But I’m not sure he ever quite got all the nuances of what his job was, though he did some good things.

He was a career politician. He had been a Democratic congressman from Center City Philadelphia. He had been elected maybe 8, 9 times—something like that. Evidently, it looked like his chances were not going to be good. This is secondhand knowledge, not firsthand. Tom Foglietta was his name. It looked like his chances of reelection were not too good. The Democratic organization wanted to run another candidate. I understand he was on Appropriations. He had a lot of influence, a lot of clout. He was loathe to give that up, but they said, “Is there something you want that we can give you?” He said, “I want to be ambassador to Italy.” So that’s how that happened, according to reports.

I’m not sure being a member of Congress is necessarily the best preparation for being an ambassador. Members of Congress, they’re working to make their constituents happy.

Q: Sure.

TERZUOLO: Ambassador Foglietta was an Italian-American. Both his parents, I believe like mine, emigrated to the U.S. He spoke Italian, really a dialect from the Molise region. I think he felt really tied to Italy. There was an emotional thing for him. It was a big deal, understandably, being ambassador to your country of origin. I think sometimes he tried a little bit too hard to make the Italians happy, rather than to make Washington happy.

“There was some ceremony, some public event or commemoration, and he very spontaneously fell to his knees in a very affecting and genuine expression of sorrow. He was not one of those really machinating, calculating people. I think it really [came] just from his gut.”

           
A EA-6B Prowler aircraft, the type of aircraft involved in the incident
A EA-6B Prowler aircraft, the type of aircraft involved in the incident

Legalistic and Emotional Responses: I believe there were two trials. The first trial basically absolved the aircrew. I think everyone was incensed because, if you knew anything at all about the incident, there was no cause for them to be flying that low. It was evidently something they did as a kind of challenge among the pilots, according to reports. Our air attaché, a great guy, Air Force colonel, F-16 pilot, was just livid. “If they did that in the Air Force, they would be out on their backsides! We wouldn’t put up with that.” These were Marine pilots. I love the Marines, but…. Anyway, I think a lot of us were really disturbed at the result. The ambassador was insistent on putting out a press statement condemning the decision of the U.S. military court. We tried to stop it, but ultimately he said, “Do it.” As you can imagine, that did not go down well.

Q: Unless his connections were really strong in Washington, you can get recalled for something like that.

TERZUOLO: Yes. Well, I think Marc Grossman was the undersecretary for political affairs at that point. Marc evidently called and just really read him the riot act. Again, I think Ambassador Foglietta had this very strong concern with the Italian public and how they viewed it. In fact, most of the people who were killed were not Italians, but it was an episode on Italian soil. Lots of issues raised about sovereignty. “A violation of our sovereignty.” “What’s up with those NATO status of forces agreements and things like that?” “Why aren’t these people being tried in an Italian court?” You know, the usual things that happen when something bad occurs, but involves people who are covered by a status of forces agreement that grants primary jurisdiction to the sending state, not the receiving state. But, try to explain to the public. It’s very hard. Ambassador Foglietta was legitimately concerned about the public impact, but didn’t always deal with it in the best way.

On the other hand, he also did something to his credit that I don’t think a career officer would have done. It was a long time ago. I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but he went to the town, Cavalese, where this occurred. It is often referred to as the Cermis because Cermis was the mountain on which it occurred, but the town closest is Cavalese in northeastern Italy. There was some ceremony, some public event or commemoration, and he very spontaneously fell to his knees in a very affecting and genuine expression of sorrow. He was not one of those really machinating, calculating people. I think it really [came] just from his gut. He was a good person. He just fell to his knees with emotion.

Q: Oh, boy.

TERZUOLO: And that was great, because that was perceived as an act of contrition. We obviously had tried in every possible way to work within all the agreements, the network of agreements and treaties that had governed the U.S. military presence in Italy. We were very concerned about maintaining our status there, heading off political problems. But certainly, our approach risked a lot of the time coming off as very legalistic.

Q: Right.

TERZUOLO: Legalistic doesn’t play well with the public. The ambassador, how much he thought about this beforehand? I doubt very much honestly. That’s my assessment of him. It just felt right to him in the moment, and he went with it. But it was a good thing and actually helped us out. I think often political appointee ambassadors, people who come out of political life, have a feel for certain things and situations that is different from the wonky feel, perhaps legalistic rules-based approach, within which career officials tend to operate. This can be a big boon.

I remember Ambassador Rabb, the first time I served in Rome, a number of situations he just handled so smoothly and nicely that from a wonkish perspective were terrible. He would just grab somebody under the arm, take him into his office, and talk about all the great stuff he did with the Ford Foundation after WWII and his experiences there. “Hey, come over to the house for lunch.” Everything was good suddenly. He would start out with this thing that looked very conflictual and awful, and, by the end of lunch, they are best friends! These are skills I highly respect.

“I’ll tell you though, within half an hour of the accident, faxes! We still used faxes. Faxes were pouring into the embassy, into all sorts of places in the town. They are pouring in from personal injury attorneys in the U.S.”

           
Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema | Wikimedia Commons
Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema | Wikimedia Commons

The Italian Government’s Response: Going back to the Cavalese incident, there was a real irony to the way the Italian government dealt with it. During the Cold War, we had spent so much time worrying about the communists coming to power, although after 1948 there really was not much to worry about. Maybe a bit around in the mid-‘70s. Massimo D’Alema, who had been communist his whole life—the party had changed its name, but he was in essence the head of the Communist Party—became prime minister in ’99. This is a huge event. It was a sea change for part of the Italian body politic that had been pushed aside for decades. Kept on the sidelines. Not without influence, but largely kept on the sidelines. All of a sudden, they’ve got prime minister. Of course, what does D’Alema do? Smart politician that he is—he’s still active, although he doesn’t have a big role in the party anymore—he goes and is trying to build bridges to everybody who might have a problem with him. He gets named prime minister, and where is the first place he goes? He goes to meet the Pope. In the Italian context, a brilliant move. A lot of my secularist Italian friends were not happy about it, but you’ve got to respect that it was actually a smart move in the broader Italian context.

D’Alema and his people were just really terrific partners with us in trying to deal with this problem. They basically had to rewrite the law in order to be able to deal with this.

This was the 1990s, so social media is not a big thing. No one had heard of Twitter or Facebook. I’ll tell you though, within half an hour of the accident, faxes! We still used faxes. Faxes were pouring into the embassy, into all sorts of places in the town. They are pouring in from personal injury attorneys in the U.S.

Q: Holy cow!

TERZUOLO: They really… You’ve got to give these people credit, but they pushed so hard that basically, to be very cynical about it, short of getting the attorneys their payday, this issue was going to be kept alive. The families, of course, were heartbroken. I’m glad we were able to get them some financial compensation. A lot of adults died. Families obviously took a hit. You can’t compensate for the loss of a loved one, but you can try to help them move on with their lives, and finances, honestly, are a big part of that, yes. The Italian laws and regulations, however, really called for very small damages and payments.

Q: Compensation?

TERZUOLO: Compensation. The way it works under the treaties, status of forces and other agreements that governed this, it was really up to the Italians to pay damages to the people, and then we would reimburse them. That was the mechanism foreseen by treaty. However, the Italians start looking at this. “We’ve got a problem here because we’re not accustomed to these large awards in damage judgments, so this is what we would be able to do.” They were talking maybe $20,000 per person or something similar. Miniscule payments. Certainly, the attorneys were not going to be happy with their 30, 40 percent of that. We’re going “Oh, my gosh, is there some other way?” D’Alema assigned really good people to work on this. Marco Minitti, who is still an important player in Italian politics. He’s pulled in a lawyer, a jurist who was very expert, Domenico Cacopardo, a very smart guy, and said, “You’ve got to solve this.” In the end, yes, the Italians passed a special law allowing them to pay much larger damages.

“The yelling I did at the State Department legal advisors, I’ve never done that with anybody else in my life. I guess I finally managed to bludgeon them into submission on this point.”

           
The U.S. and Italian Defense Ministers sign the report on the incident. | Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. and Italian Defense Ministers sign the report on the incident. | Wikimedia Commons

Agreeing to a Settlement: Now, of course, there was a problem on the U.S. side. As you can well imagine, the people in DOD wanted to get rid of this problem. They said, “We’ve got the money. We will reimburse. Whatever the Italians can pay, we’ll reimburse them. We want to solve this as best we can because we have big interests at stake with Italy.” It was the State Department Legal Advisor’s (L) office that had problems, because of fear of establishing precedents, putting at risk the SOFA (status of forces agreement) or whichever agreement exactly established how reimbursements were supposed to work. Usually, I don’t swear much. I don’t scream. It’s not part of me. The discussions I had, they weren’t discussions. The yelling I did at the State Department legal advisors, I’ve never done that with anybody else in my life. I guess I finally managed to bludgeon them into submission on this point. Basically, the memos were drafted. Everything DOD was saying, “Yay, rah, let’s go. Absolutely no problem!” And L was holding its clearance.

Q: Okay. L was out of its mind. That’s where you go to the under secretary, deputy secretary, secretary and just say, “Mm, you know, this just can’t be.” In other words, somebody at a higher level needs to say, “They need to be explained a certain reality here.”

TERZUOLO: Yes, we called in other chips. I threatened them extensively with all the people we were going to get calling into them! We did manage to solve that. Then, of course, you had to develop mechanisms for dealing with this. Trying to publicize what was going on and making clear we were trying to help people out. That was a lot of work, I’ll tell you. It was a horrible thing. You can’t make it right ever. But I think in the end, we managed to do things for the families that helped them enough that the attorneys backed off and stopped lobbying members of Congress. In a sense, it probably didn’t hurt that there was a second trial revolving around destruction of evidence. I don’t recall the details, but some people, or at least one person, from the aircrew did get convicted and sentenced to some time. I’m not sure what he actually served. You’re also getting this controversial issue within the broader military community. Military families got involved, demonstrating in support of the flyers. That was probably the single most complex, long-running thing I had to deal with. I think we got a good result in the end.

Q: Wow.

TERZUOLO: It was a bit what I was saying before. With the Italians, even with the first post-Communist prime minister—perhaps even especially with the first post-Communist prime minister—we have been used to solving problems together. But it takes time and work. So that pretty much chewed me up for about two-and-a-half years.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in History, University of Minnesota 1973–1976
PhD in History, Stanford University 1976–1980
Entered the Foreign Service 1982
Prague, Czech Republic—Political Officer 1991–1994
Paris, France—Deputy Chief, Political Section 1994–1997
Rome, Italy—Political-Military Counselor 1997–2001
The Hague, Netherlands—Senior U.S. Representative to the OPCW 2001–2003