Finding closure after a tragedy is a necessary part of the healing process, but what if that isn’t possible? For the loved ones of missing persons—or those with cases that have long gone cold—the questions they ask themselves can haunt them for a lifetime.

Such was the case with the elusive Flight 870 from Italy, which crashed for reasons that still have not been determined. The mystery surrounding it continues to perplex not just surviving friends and family of those who were on board, but the entire nation…

On June 27, 1980, a plane leaving Bologna, Italy, headed toward Palermo, Sicily—but it never arrived. The infamous crash of Flight 870 has been shrouded in mystery for decades, and now, experts finally may be closer to finding an answer.

Marcomob / Wikimedia Commons

To understand what may have happened, experts had to scrutinize every detail. Flight 870 carried four crew members, two flight attendants, and 77 passengers. Initially, everything seemed to be going fine…

Marcomob / Wikimedia Commons

 A mere hour after takeoff, however, there was a problem. Captain Domenico Gatti had been in the middle of alerting Palermo International Airport’s ground control that he was about to land when he suddenly let out a sound of shock.

At that point, contact between Flight 870 and ground control ceased—and the plane disappeared from the radar. Then, just before 9 p.m., roughly 90 miles from Palermo, the plane was located in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Italian Air Force quickly dispatched two F-104 jets to the scene.

Rescue teams found debris from the plane near the island of Ustica, and it quickly became clear that there were no survivors. The initial belief was that a technical problem caused the crash. The country waited for an official explanation, but no report was ever released, and rumors ran rampant.

Erm67 / Wikimedia Commons

Time went on, but the case remained unsolved. Family members of the victims started to speculate that something more complicated than a mechanical fault was to blame. Finally, decades later, several theories surfaced as to the cause of the mysterious crash…

MemoryCatcher / Pixabay

For instance, just five weeks after the crash, a bomb had been placed in the train station of Bologna by neo-fascist terrorists. This terrifying incident only bolstered theories that the crash of Flight 870 was no accident. Was there something more sinister at play that day?

It didn’t help that, in 1989, the Italian government had issued a cryptic statement through the Parliamentary Commission for Terrorism: “[Flight 870] was shot down,” it explained. “The lives of 81 innocent citizens were destroyed by an action properly described as an act of war, real war undeclared, a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights.” The statement was missing something, though…

Radio Città del Capo / Flickr

Excluded from the report was the name of who may have been responsible for the attack. The report also indicated that there had been a missile, even though a claim by another government commission pointed to an explosion within the plane itself. The public demanded answers.

luca.ghedini@gmail.com / Wikimedia Commons

It looked like there was a break in the case in 1994, when the British government joined the investigation effort. They determined a bomb was detonated on the plane, causing the crash… The problem? The Italian High Courts dismissed the findings entirely.

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

The confusion didn’t end there. In 1999, Italian judge Rosario Priore produced a report of his own, claiming that there had been a cover-up by Italian officials. He alleged that Flight 870 was a pawn in a high-stakes political game…

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

Priore claimed that Flight 870 was simply caught in the crossfire between Italian, French, Libyan, and U.S. air forces during an attempt to assassinate a Libyan head of state. In the years since, other sources have supported it, leading to a complicated conspiracy theory.

Ndunruh / Wikimedia Commons

This theory gained a lot of attention, because all of those nations had planes using the same airspace the day of the crash. Documents procured by Italian media also supported the theory.

Moreover, Muammar Gaddafi, the then-leader of Libya, had been flying that same day. Gaddafi’s plane was, in fact, attacked by the French, perhaps accidentally (though conspiracy theorists argued this was no coincidence).

StanMan87 / Wikimedia Commons

Astonishingly, more conspiracy theories have developed since. One asserted that Flight 870 actually landed safely in the water before British forces sent scuba divers to blow it up in an effort to kill any witnesses to the assassination attempt.

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One journalist came up with another theory, claiming that Israeli forces accidentally shot down Flight 870 because they had confused it for a different plane taking uranium to Iraq.

Still, the earlier theory that Flight 870 was caught in a dogfight received the most traction in the following years, since there was radar evidence of a military presence in the area.

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Four Italian Air Force generals were actually indicted on charges of perjury and high treason following Priore’s theory, but two of them were declared not guilty in April 2004. The statute of limitations had run out on the others.

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

The wreckage of Flight 870 itself was heavily examined for 26 years in Rome before finally being sent back to Bologna in 2006. Now, anyone can view the mysterious remnants of the plane for themselves by visiting the Museum for the Memory of Ustica.

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

A final turning point in the saga came in 2011 when the Italian government was ordered to pay damages to the families of all the victims on Flight 870 at a civil tribunal. Technically, this was not a criminal charge, but it did seem to indicate that they had admitted some culpability…

Museo per la Memoria di Ustica

We may never learn the answers to the mystery of Flight 870, but that doesn’t mean the speculation will end anytime soon. For all we know, there’s more to this story!

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