Among the few things we know for sure is the history of flight until the time of its shooting down. We know for example that the plane took off from Bologna almost two hours late compared to the scheduled departure time. We know that, just under an hour later, the plane’s black box recorded the last conversation that took place in the cockpit. After cleaning up the audio track, it was discovered that the recording ended with the words: “Look, what is it?”, Pronounced at 8:59. Shortly after the Palermo airport he contacted the plane to coordinate the descent, but not got answer. Search operations began immediately and in the night the first wreckage of the plane was found just over a hundred kilometers from the island of Ustica.
The first investigations of the disaster were carried out in parallel by the judiciary and a ministerial commission. At that time there was not much on which investigators could base their work. The plane had crashed in a stretch where the Tyrrhenian Sea drops to a depth of 3 thousand meters, and only a handful of debris had been recovered. In 1981 the ministerial commission assumed that the plane had crashed due to a failure due to poor maintenance. The hypothesis, which became famous as the “structural failure” hypothesis, was soon ridiculed.
Right from the start, in fact, there were much more sinister hypotheses about the causes of the massacre. According to one of the most accredited, the plane had been shot down by a bomb placed on board. At the time hitting airliners was a strategy used relatively frequently by terrorist groups: in the previous decade as many as 11 planes had been attacked in this way. In 1982 this hypothesis acquired further solidity when an appraisal discovered traces of explosives on some of the few finds that had been managed to recover.
There was a strong clue, however, against the bomb hypothesis. The DC-9 had left two hours late and therefore it seemed unlikely that it had been shot down by a time bomb, which if placed on board before departure would have had to explode while the plane was still on the runway awaiting authorization to start. A suicide terrorist may have fired the bomb on board the plane, but if attacks on airlines were frequent at the time, suicide attacks were not as frequent.
– Also read: Brief history of suicide terrorism
In the meantime, however, suspicions multiplied around another hypothesis: that the ITAVIA DC-9 had been shot down by mistake during an air crash between NATO, American or French planes, and Libyan planes (Libya all he era had particularly tense relations with the United States and several armed accidents occurred in those years between the two countries).
Among the elements in favor of the thesis of the “air battle” there was, one month after the accident in Ustica, the discovery of a Libyan fighter plane shot down in the mountains of Calabria. Although no armed force ever admitted to hitting the Libyan plane, the finding was considered evidence that in the summer of 1980 the skies over the central Mediterranean had been the scene of one or more plane crashes.
Another shocking episode occurred eight years later, when a man who claimed to be a radar operator on duty the night of the disaster telephoned the broadcast. Yellow telephone conducted by Corrado Augias. The man said that the DC-9 had been shot down during an air battle and that the aviation commanders had ordered to cover up the story.
For many, then, definitive proof of the origin of the massacre was provided by Francesco Cossiga, who at the time of the accident was Prime Minister and then was elected President of the Republic. Cossiga – who had not made any particular contributions to the reconstruction of the massacre during the investigation – said in 2007 that at the time the secret services informed him that a missile fired from a French plane leaving the aircraft carrier Clemenceu had shot down the DC-9. The ITAVIA plane was said to have been exchanged by the French for what Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was carrying.
Cossiga’s statements were deemed sufficiently reliable and important (Cossiga on the other hand was head of government at the time of the accident), so as to push the Rome prosecutor to reopen the investigation. Others, on the other hand, found his statements unreliable, that he had often played ambiguous roles and that on other occasions he had made controversial reconstructions of historical events in which he had participated. During the investigation, the French authorities provided documents according to which it appeared that on 27 June the aircraft carrier Clemenceau was in the port of Toulon, therefore far from Sicily and the southern Tyrrhenian Sea.
Parliamentary committees, journalists and magistrates have tried for years to put together the pieces of this puzzle, helped – since 1987 – by the recovery of most of the wreckage of the DC-9 ITAVIA, which is now exhibited in a museum in Bologna. The investigations and trials of the magistrates developed into three sections. The first consists of criminal trials to identify those responsible and which, to date, have produced no convictions (a new criminal investigation has, however, been underway for some years by the Rome prosecutor’s office). The second is the process of sidetracking that would have been carried out by politicians and soldiers to hide what really happened. This process ended in 2007 with the acquittal of the two generals still charged.
The third strand is the one that has brought the greatest results and is constituted by the civil lawsuits brought by the relatives of the victims to obtain compensation. Civil judges ruled that DC-9 was shot down by mistake during an air crash. The court, later confirmed by the Court of Cassation, sentenced the ministries of Defense and Transport to compensate the victims, since they had not supervised the Italian skies to avoid the disaster. Ministries were also convicted of obstructing the investigation.
Alongside these official documents and investigations, the Ustica massacre has produced hundreds of other alternative reconstructions, independent investigations and journalistic investigations. Dozens and dozens of hypotheses have been made over the years on the nationality of the planes that would have collided, the reasons for the battle and the involvement of important personalities in the sidings. Like many other episodes from our recent past, the Ustica massacre has thus become an infinite reservoir for the creation of new conspiracy theories, often supported by “super witnesses” who decide to speak for the first time decades after the facts.
– Also read: All the false mysteries of the Moro Case
Of all the mysteries of the seventies and eighties, that of Ustica still remains one of those that deserves this name most. As the judges of the civil trials have ascertained and as the Cassation confirmed, in the Ustica case there were actually conspiracies to hide the truth and there were obscure direct and indirect responsible for the shooting down of the DC-9. In 40 years, however, few progress has been made on their names and nationalities, at least officially.