Four senior managers from the air-traffic control company Skyguide have been convicted of causing Germany's worst air accident in which 71 people were killed when two planes collided in mid-air in July 2002.
A Swiss court sentenced three of the managers to 12-month suspended jail terms and the fourth was fined 13,500 Swiss francs (£5,500). Another four Skyguide employees, including an air-traffic controller who was taking a break at the time of the crash, were acquitted.
Judges at the court in Bülach found the four managers guilty of manslaughter and ruled that their actions had contributed to a "climate of negligence" at Skyguide which had caused the mid-air collision of a Russian passenger airliner with a DHL cargo plane over southern Germany on 1 July 2002. Forty-nine of the victims were Russian children who had been flying out to a holiday in Spain. A bereaved Russian father later stabbed to death the lone controller who was on duty at the time of the crash.
Yesterday's sentences fell short of the 15-month suspended jail terms Swiss prosecutors had demanded for the eight executives. Seven still work for Skyguide. All had maintained their innocence.
Rainer Hohler, the presiding judge, described the crash as an "unimaginable tragedy" but insisted the trial was a question of the accused managers' " personal responsibility" for the incident. "None of the accused can claim as an excuse that someone else could have prevented the accident," he said.
Bernhard Hecht, the senior state prosecutor, said the accident had occurred as a result of a "chain reaction" that included "failures in duty and informal mistakes".
An investigation into the causes of the disaster established that Peter Nielsen, 36, the air-traffic controller who was subsequently stabbed to death, was alone on duty at the time and that he had only managed to warn the doomed aircraft of their impending collision 43 seconds beforehand. Radar and phone systems at Skyguide's air-traffic control centre in Zürich were undergoing a routine service and were not operating on the night of the crash. A second controller was taking a break when the collision occurred.
During the trial, one of the defendants insisted he had had seen no reason to change Skyguide's practice of leaving a single controller on duty. "I was the boss and I could have changed thesituation," he said. "It was a well-known practice that the management was aware of, and I saw no reason to change things."
Another Skyguide manager denied suggestions that Nielsen could have been over-taxed by being left alone on air-traffic control duty and insisted that the practice of solo shifts had existed at the company "for ages". The trial nevertheless revealed that, minutes before the crash, Nielsen was in charge of 15 planes and had made 118 radio contacts with them. Skyguide has since discontinued the practice of solo shifts.
State prosecutors had argued that the crash could have been prevented if the second controller on duty at the time had been in the control room instead of taking a break. They argued that Skyguide management tolerated solo shifts although the practice contravened international standards.
German air crash investigators established in 2004 that technical defects and human error at Skyguide and on board the Russian Tupolev passenger plane were the causes of the crash. In May, Francis Schubert, Skyguide's managing director, accepted his company's responsibility for the crash. "The firm has a system, which on the night of 1 July 2002, failed to function as it should have done," he said.
Tragedy of the father who sought revenge
Vitali Kaloyev's wife, his 10-year-old son and his daughter, aged four, were among the 71 victims of the 2002 collision for which four Skyguide air traffic control company managers were sentenced yesterday.
But Kaloyev, a former Russian engineer, was unable to make public his feelings about the suspended prison terms imposed on the four executives because he is in prison.
Kaloyev, 53, sought his own form of justice after travelling to Germany immediately after the crash. He found his daughter dead in the wreckage. Outwardly, her body was almost unscathed because trees had broken her fall – but his wife and son were virtually unrecognisable. The experience led Kaloyev to turn his home into a shrine dedicated to his family's memory. But he also tracked down Peter Nielsen, 36, the only Skyguide air traffic controller who was on duty on the night of the crash.
Kaloyev was said to have been incensed that Skyguide was accepting only partial responsibility for the accident. In February 2004, he rang the doorbell of Mr Nielsen's home near Zurich and stabbed the Danish-born controller to death in front of his children. Kaloyev was caught and sentenced to eight years in jail after being convicted of premeditated killing. "I have forgotten how to live," he told the court during his trial. He has served less than half of his sentence but Swiss judges are due to rule later this year whether he is fit for early release on probation.