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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swiss Pride Shaken by Midair Collision

GENEVA -- The Swiss role in the jet crash that killed 44 Russian youngsters and 27 other people over southern Germany has dealt another blow to the country's pride in its much-vaunted precision and reliability. And the changing story of Swiss air traffic controllers has only added to the damage.

"It's one more embarrassment for Switzerland," said Olivier Borer, 28, a musician from the northern town of Solothurn. "Switzerland is having to pay for always having thought we were the best."

Last week's collision of a Russian passenger jet with a DHL cargo plane occurred within Swiss air traffic control space even though it was over Germany. At first, the Swiss appeared to blame the Russian pilot, saying they had told him several times to descend and received only one reply.

"The problem was that the Russian plane did not respond immediately," said Anton Maag, spokesman for the Swiss air traffic control company Skyguide. "The descent was begun very late."

Then German investigators discovered the Swiss controller gave the pilot of the Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 only 44 seconds to avoid a crash with the DHL Boeing 757.

On Monday, the Germans added that the controller's order to descend contradicted a climb command that came one second earlier from the plane's collision warning system.

The pilot did as directed by the controller, unaware that by doing so he was putting the jet on a collision course with the cargo plane, which was descending in compliance with its own onboard warning system.

According to German investigators, Skyguide also didn't make separate radio contact with the pilot of the DHL cargo plane even though it should have been clear minutes beforehand that the aircraft were on a collision course at 10,800 meters in otherwise empty skies.

As if that weren't enough, a collision warning system at Zurich airport was down for routine maintenance, and the main telephone system was being serviced, with only a backup telephone line available.

Furthermore, only one air traffic controller was working because a colleague was taking a break. While one Skyguide spokesman said this was a breach of the company's rules, another said it was acceptable at night when air traffic is light.

Still, many Swiss find it hard to believe that they could be at fault.

Marlies Reust, a part-time nurse from Lucerne, said she wasn't willing to concede it was a Swiss mistake that led to the crash. "For me it is certainly a tragedy, but you can't say it is a mistake by Skyguide.

"I don't claim that we do everything right, but I do think that they know what they're doing in Zurich," she said.

The Swiss are a country of 7.3 million people who regard themselves as a neutral haven for decency and democracy in the heart of Europe. They also pride themselves on their efficiency, reliability and their capacity to thrive even though they lack of natural resources.

But the assaults on that image have been coming fast and thick in recent years. Swiss bankers have had to adapt their vaunted secrecy to join the global fight against terror and money-laundering.

In September, a gunman shattered their sense of security by killing 15 people in an assault on a state legislature that few people dreamed could occur within their borders. A few days later, the once-revered airline Swissair collapsed.

Then the vital Gotthard Tunnel, an engineering marvel through the Alps, had to close after a truck collision and resulting blaze killed 11. The crash of a Swiss regional airliner into a snowy hill on the approach to Zurich airport left 24 dead last November. "It's a lot for our little country," said Laurette Jaccard, a retired photographer in Le Muids, a farming village outside Geneva.