RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Air traffic controllers shared some of the blame in Brazil's worst air disaster that left 154 people dead when two planes collided over the Amazon rain forest in September, a spokeswoman for the chief investigator said Monday.
The pilots of the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet, which survived the midair collision with a Boeing 737, and air traffic controllers will likely be held responsible when the official investigation is concluded in just over a month, said the spokeswoman, Tamares Carvalho.
Statements by lead investigator Renato Sayao on Sunday local media marked the first time Brazilian authorities have said that anyone other than the two U.S. pilots of the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet could be held responsible for the Sept. 29 crash that left 154 people dead.
But because air traffic controllers are military personnel, federal police can only submit their findings to military justice officials, who would then decide whether or not to prosecute them, Carvalho said, confirming Sayao's comments.
In theory, the air traffic controllers could face up to 12 years in prison on homicide charges and exposing an aircraft to danger because they failed to divert the Boeing after the Legacy disappeared from their radar, Carvalho said.
Carvalho did not know if authorities would pursue criminal charges against the American pilots - Joseph Lepore, 42, of Bay Shore, New York, and Jan Paladino, 34, of Westhampton Beach, New York - who have been formally accused by police with exposing an aircraft to danger.
Shortly after the crash, Lepore and Paladino had their passports seized and were forced to remain in Brazil for 71 days before being allowed to return home, under the agreement that they could return to face charges.
Authorities claim the pilots should have noticed that the jet's transponder, which transmits the plane's altitude and operates its automatic anti-collision system, was turned off for at least 50 minutes before the collision. Investigators, however, have not been able to determine whether the transponder was turned off by the pilots or was shut off do to a malfunction.
ExcelAire, the owner of the Legacy, said in a statement Monday the "pilots did not intentionally or inadvertently disengage the Legacy's transponder or TCAS (anti-collision) system and that there was no indication in the cockpit at any time during the flight that the transponder or TCAS system were not operational."
The Legacy was heading northwest on its maiden voyage from the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos to the United States when the accident occurred at 37,000 feet, an altitude usually reserved for flights headed in the opposite direction.
Transcripts suggest the Legacy had been authorized by the tower in Sao Jose dos Campos to fly at 37,000 feet to Manaus, although that contradicted the plane's original flight plan.
Air traffic controllers said they believed the Legacy was flying at 36,000 feet at the time it collided with Gol Flight 1907.