At 7:50 p.m. on September 29, 2006, two planes collided high over the Amazon. One of them, a Boeing 737, was carrying 154 passengers, and the other was a brand-new private jet piloted by Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach and Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore, with a crew of four.
After the collision, the Boeing airliner, owned by Gol Airlines, fell from the sky and crashed into the jungle killing all on board. Somehow, the private jet, an Embracer Legacy 600, in spite of losing part of its tail and wing, continued along, although in desperate condition, and slowly losing altitude. Those on board had no idea what had happened. The pilot later said it felt as if they had hit a pothole, but the loss of control was great enough so that they all thought they were going to die. (Joe Sharkey, a reporter from The New York Times who had hitched a ride on the plane to do a freelance story for National Geographic, wrote an account of that night, which ran in the Times two days later.) [expand]
Amazingly, a half hour later, Paladino and Lepore were able to land 125 miles from the location of the collision on the runway of a Brazilian military base. There they were initially treated as the survivors they were but the next day, when the full extent of what had happened became known, the other passengers were released, but the two pilots were asked to surrender their passports and were detained at a hotel. Two months later, after much diplomatic wrangling between the United States and Brazil, the two men were released and were able to return to Long Island in spite of protests from the Brazilian public that they be forced to remain in Brazil and stand trial as killers.
Much debate continued about the crash and what ensued. Here in America, most people felt the surviving pilots should not have been tried at all. It had been an accident. Others said the trial was being used as a distraction from the decrepit state of the Brazilian air traffic controller system. But 154 people had died.
The trial continued in Brazil, with the two pilots, now absent but testifying by videoconference from a courtroom in Islip, charged with six counts, including failure to maintain proper altitude and unintentional negligent destruction of a public conveyance.
Last month, five years after this disaster, which was until that time the largest air disaster in Brazilian history, a judge in Brazil dismissed all charges but one, failure to notice that their crash warning system was not activated. Then this week, the judge sentenced Lepore and Paladino to four years and four months in jail, which he then immediately commuted to four years and four months of community service, to be served according to Brazilian law but here on Long Island.
At the announcement of the sentencing, the lawyer for the pilots said they would appeal this sentence to have it thrown out. Meanwhile, the lawyer for the prosecution said he would appeal the sentence to have it be considered inadequate.
How this sentence would be served under Brazilian law is not known, but here in New York State, according to a County Clerk in Islip, a commuted sentence means seven hours of service for every day of the jail sentence not served. So, for example, a sentence of one year of community service would convert to 2,555 hours of service, an amount that could be served over 10 years so it could be served part time. In this case, it might extend through the rest of these pilots’ lives, though part time. You might see them volunteering at food pantries, shelters, community centers and schools.
On the other hand, even if the sentence were upheld on appeal, it might not have to be served at all. Though extradition exists between Brazil and America for many crimes, conviction of just such a minor offense is not included. The pilots could conceivably not do community service here and only have to avoid ever returning to Brazil.
Crucial testimony in this case was given by the Brazilian air traffic controllers who were in touch with the two aircraft. One of these air traffic controllers, Sgt. Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, had been the specific controller on duty and assigned to give orders to these aircraft.
Noticing on his screen that the Brazilian plane was already at 37,000 feet and on a collision course with the Americans, instead of asking the Americans to move, he simply readjusted his computer to show that the 37,000 feet for the private jet was now 36,000. After that, the records show he repeatedly failed to answer repeated radio requests from the Americans, who had seen the other aircraft as a blip on their screens and wanted to know what, if anything, they should do. Confronted with this information at trial, dos Santos claimed that when he saw the Americans at 37,000 feet, he thought he was observing a malfunction in his equipment and so re-calibrated it. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 months in jail last October for his part in this disaster and he is currently in jail doing just that. [/expand]