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U.S. fliers express sorrow over deaths

The four crew members of the Marine jet that brought down a cable car loaded with skiers expressed sympathy Sunday to friends and relatives of the 20 victims and said they would never deliberately jeopardize lives.

"What occurred on Feb. 3 was a tragedy," the statement released by the men's lawyer said. "We cherish life and take our jobs very seriously. We would never do anything to purposely endanger the lives of others. We all share in your tremendous loss."The message carried the signatures of the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif., and Capts. Joseph Schweitzer, 30, of Westbury, N.Y.; William Raney II, 26, of Englewood, Colo., and Chandler Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind.

A U.S.-Italian inquiry is under way to determine why the jet swept so low over an Alpine ski resort Tuesday, slicing a cable and sending the gondola crashing into the slopes of Mount Cermis, killing all 20 people aboard.

The U.S. military has acknowledged the plane was well below the approved altitude of 500 feet.

The crew members, assigned to the Air Force base in Aviano, northeast Italy, have been grounded during the investigation. They have refused to talk to Italian investigators.

Earlier Sunday, officials at Aviano said investigators were unable to retrieve any data from the Marine jet's flight recorder and were seeking help from the recorder's manufacturer, which they did not identify.

"We're waiting for a software expert to arrive from the States," said an Aviano spokesman, Master Gunnery Sgt. Tom Adams.

Trento prosecutor Francantonio Granero has said the recorder might have been damaged when it was removed from the EA-6B Prowler.

A member of the maintenance crew that was servicing the jet after it landed, leaking fuel, removed the recorder, which was then kept in a safe until it was handed over to Italian authorities on Thursday, the Aviano statement said.

Early on, Italian authorities had accused the Americans of trying to withhold the recorder.

"There has been no attempt to erase or damage any part of the tape," the Aviano statement said.