January 20, 2007 / 9:14 AM / 12 years ago

U.S. pilots can't leave Brazil two months after crash

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - Two U.S. pilots have been prevented from leaving Brazil for nearly two months over their role in the country’s worst air disaster and spent Thanksgiving on Thursday in their luxury seaside hotel.

Part of the fuselage of the Gol airlines Boeing 737-800 that crashed in the jungle after clipping an Embraer Legacy 600XL executive jet, lies on the jungle floor at the Jarina Indian reserve in the Brazilian Amazon basin in this October 1, 2006 file photo. Two U.S. pilots have been prevented from leaving Brazil for nearly two months over their role in the country's worst air disaster and spent Thanksgiving on Thursday in their luxury seaside hotel. REUTERS/Jamil Bittar

Their lawyer, Robert Torricella, said Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, who deny any responsibility for the September 29 crash that killed 154 people, had to stay in Brazil against their will without being charged.

“Their situation is difficult and it is getting more difficult as time passes,” Torricella told Reuters.

The two, both from New York state, have been housed at a posh hotel on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana beach since soon after the crash.

The Legacy executive jet they piloted for New York-based ExcelAire clipped wings in mid-air with a passenger Boeing jet flown by Brazil’s Gol. The Boeing plunged into the Amazon jungle and all 154 people aboard died. The smaller jet lost a winglet but landed safely.

Police seized the pilots’ passports after a local judge ruled they must stay in Brazil while an investigation was done. The chief federal investigator has already said he sees no need for the pilots to remain in Brazil, but only a judge can allow them to leave.

“Their freedom of movement is restricted and their ability to deal with the emotions that arise from these circumstances has been entirely and unfairly compromised,” Torricella said.

Reporters have been unable to speak with the pilots, who are not registered at the hotel under their own names.

Their lawyer declined to give details on how they spend their days, but they are allowed to have contact with family members in the United States. Their wives visited them briefly soon after the crash.

The Allied Pilots Association of the United States on Wednesday issued a statement calling for the release of Lepore and Paladino. It asked Brazilian authorities to conduct the investigation under widely accepted international guidelines for civil aviation and not as a criminal probe.

The lawyers have filed a habeas corpus writ seeking relief from unlawful detainment, but it has not yet been considered by a full federal court.

Lawyers say it is against Brazilian law to detain suspects in unintentional crime as well as to treat locals and foreigners unequally. The pair were the only people involved in the incident to have their freedom restricted.

Family members of 21 Gol passengers have filed a lawsuit in New York against ExcelAire and Honeywell International Inc., which produced the Legacy’s transponder.

But while officials and the Brazilian media were quick to accuse the U.S. pilots in the first few weeks after the crash, media attention has recently shifted toward air traffic controllers, who complain of an excessive workload, low pay and blind spots in radar coverage.

Federal police on Wednesday and Thursday questioned some of the air traffic controllers involved in the incident who had previously been suspended and were undergoing psychotherapy.

Air force chief Brig. Luiz Carlos Bueno acknowledged a possibility earlier this week that a controller getting off duty could have given the wrong altitude of the Legacy to his substitute. Lawyers for controllers denied any such errors.

The pilots’ lawyers have said the first official crash report issued last week proved that air traffic control knew the Legacy was flying at 37,000 feet and did not instruct it to change altitude. Investigators still have to find out why collision avoidance equipment did not work.

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