TRAGIC INFERNO IN KAPRUN

12 November 2000


The world of snowsports is still reeling from the shock of the tragic accident in Kaprun on Saturday.

Up to 170 people were killed when a fire engulfed an Austrian funicular train carrying skiers up to the Kitzsteinerhorn Glacier at Kaprun.

At this stage there is no firm indication of how the fire may have started although Austria has announced a criminal investigation into the tragedy. There was speculation that the blaze may have been started by an electrical fault. The inferno, which reached temperatures of more than 1000 C, virtually vaporised the train.

Hospital staff in the town of Zell am See said they had treated up to 18 survivors, including a number who had managed to escape thanks to the heroic efforts of an unidentified man who managed to smash a rear window on the train with a ski pole.

The passengers perished when the train transporting them to a glacier skiing area caught fire, trapping them inside the smoke-filled tunnel. Rescue co-ordinators said last night that many of the victims had apparently managed to escape from the compartment, but were quickly overcome by acrid smoke as they tried to flee by running upward on narrow stairs leading out of the tunnel.

Manfred Muller, head of cable car technical operations, said those who survived apparently ran the opposite way, thus evading most of the smoke being blown upward by strong drafts pushing through the tunnel. Rescuers say the narrowness and steepness of the tunnel - which is used by tens of thousands of skiers from across Europe, including British holidaymakers - transformed it into a 'giant chimney', sucking in air to fuel the flames.

The resulting fire was so intense that when rescuers finally reached the site, only the train's twisted metal base remained. 'Two railway workers came directly from the tunnel and told us all they had found was the metal base of the train,' said state governor Franz Schuasberger. 'Everything else was burnt out. We have to deduce the sad news that none of the passengers survived.'

Three skiers who were waiting in a passenger area at the top of the tunnel also died from smoke inhalation. Also among the dead was the cable car attendant in the otherwise empty car returning down the mountain.

The tragedy unfortunately does raise serious questions about fire safety in Europe's road and rail tunnels. Last year, 40 people died in an inferno in the Mont Blanc road tunnel between France and Italy that started when a truck caught fire. Again the ferocity of the fire was blamed on the tunnel's ventilation.

Yesterday's fire is believed to have started in the front section of the train after one of the cables that pull the train up the mountain snapped, apparently starting the blaze beneath the train. Mueller, the head of technical operations for the underground cable car system, said the car operator was told to open all doors in the five to 10 minutes that elapsed between the sounding of an alarm and the sudden break of radio contact with the cable car attendant. He said he was mystified by how a fire could have started. The funicular had been inspected in September by safety inspectors who gave it a clean bill of health.

Salzburg Red Cross commander Gerhard Huber said there were between 150 and 170 victims, of whom half were Austrians. Among those missing were 23 Americans, including two children, from a ski club at the US military's Leighton Barracks in Würzburg, Germany.

'The fire engulfed two carriages in the middle of the tunnel,' said Huber. 'It was impossible for rescuers to reach them quickly. This is a truly shocking and horrific disaster.' Engineer Klaus Eisenkolb, who has inspected the train in the past, said that it was fitted with safety systems to bring the vehicle to an immediate halt if one of the cables snapped. 'It is not supposed to burn because the materials used are fire-resistant,' he added. But burn it did, releasing poisonous fumes which quickly overcame the trapped skiers as temperatures soared to several hundred degrees.

Eyewitness Christian Wakolbinger described how the smoke had even affected people in the mountain station at the top of the railway, which is where three of the fatalities are believed to have occurred. 'The smoke swept up the tunnel so quickly that some people in the Alpine Centre were affected by smoke poisoning,' he said.

The tunnel was opened in 1974 with the present train installed in 1994.

(Story from Guardian Unlimited)

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