SAO PAULO, Brazil – Two U.S. pilots accused of playing a role in Brazil's worst air accident left the country for the first time since the September crash that killed 154 people, arriving in New York on Saturday to a crowd of relatives and friends.
The two — Joseph Lepore, 42, and Jan Paladino, 34 — were piloting a small executive jet that on Sept. 29 collided with a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 over the Amazon jungle. All 154 people aboard the Gol flight were killed, while the smaller jet landed safely with all seven people aboard unharmed.
On Friday, the two pilots — who had remained in Brazil since the accident, as authorities confiscated their passports — left a meeting with Brazilian federal police formally accused of exposing an aircraft to danger. If convicted, the men could face 12 years in prison.
Lepore, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Paladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., were allowed to return to the U.S. after signing a document promising to return to Brazil for their trial or when required by local authorities.
Upon their arrival, they were greeted by a crowd of around 200 cheering people after their plane arrived just before noon at an airfield in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
Lepore hugged his daughter, who was holding a bouquet of red, white and blue balloons. One girl held a sign that said, "You are the best holiday gift ever."
Under Brazilian law, a judge will now decide whether to indict the pilots and send them to trial, a process that could take weeks or months.
"They were anxiously awaiting for this opportunity to give their explanation to police," said Jose Carlos Dias, a lawyer for the pilots. "(But) before their deposition, we were caught by surprise with the information that the pilots would be accused."
Police said the pilots' "lack of caution" at the controls of the Legacy jet owned by ExcelAire of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., played a role in the collision.
Dias called the accusation "biased" and said police were simply "looking for someone to blame for the crime." He added that if the factors leading to the fatal collision were considered unintentional, the maximum penalty would fall to four years in prison.
The pilots were notified of the accusation when they walked into Friday's meeting with police.
"The decision of this investigator to accuse Joe and Jan of a crime without ever hearing their testimony is incredibly absurd," said Robert Torricella, an attorney for the pilots.
Brazilian authorities said there was evidence to support the accusations.
"We can't affirm their actions are solely responsible for the crash," Federal Police Investigator Ramon Almeida da Silva said. "But the evidence shows they acted with negligence."
An extradition treaty between Brazil and the United States allows both countries to request the return of individuals if the offense committed is considered a crime by both nations.
The pilots have been virtual prisoners since the crash, largely blamed by local media and having to hide themselves in their rooms at a hotel on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach for the more than two months.
Police said Lepore and Paladino told them on Friday that they would respond to the accusations in court.
The Legacy jet was heading northwest on its maiden voyage from the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos to the U.S. when the accident occurred at an altitude of 37,000 feet, usually reserved for flights headed in the opposite direction.
Transcripts suggest the Legacy had been authorized by the control tower in Sao Jose dos Campos to fly at 37,000 feet, although that contradicted the plane's original flight plan. The pilots have denied any wrongdoing.
There is "no question they had permission to be at 37,000 feet," Torricella said Friday. "They were never given a contrary instruction."
Air traffic controllers believed the Legacy was flying at 36,000 feet at the time it collided with Gol flight, Brig. Gen. Luiz Carlos da Silva Bueno recently told a Senate committee.
Warning systems failed on both planes before they collided, an Air Force investigator said last month.
ExcelAire issued a statement repudiating the authorities' decision to formally accuse the pilots, saying they received "differentiated treatment."