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2000: Skiers die in train tunnel inferno

At least 150 people are feared to have died in an intense fire on board a funicular railway in the Austrian Alps.

Most of those who died were weekend skiers, many of them children.

The cable train was in a steep, narrow underground tunnel nearly two miles (3km) long which carries skiers up Mount Kitzsteinhorn in the ski resort of Kaprun, south of Salzburg.

It was less than half a mile (600 metres) inside the tunnel when fire broke out.

The cause is not yet known, although there has been speculation it may have been due to an electrical fault.

Tourist victims

A press spokeswoman for the Kaprun resort told journalists: "We believe German, British and Americans were among the dead, but no names or nationalities can yet be confirmed."

Just eight people escaped from the train after a German man managed to smash a rear window with a ski pole.

Because they were at the back of the train and escaped downwards, they avoided the poisonous smoke rushing upwards through the tunnel.

One of the survivors gave a harrowing account of the scene inside the train.

"People were crying and screaming in fear for their lives," he said.

"They tried to tear open the closed doors and smash the windows. I only managed to save myself in the last seconds because a window had been kicked in."


Peter Johnson, an American holidaymaker waiting with his wife at the bottom of the mountain to catch the next train, described seeing a cable snap and fly up into the air a few feet away from him.

"Everyone ran away from the station, and then there was this massive explosion, like when they dynamite a mountain, or like an avalanche," he said.

Rescuers said the narrowness and steepness of the tunnel transformed it into a giant chimney, sucking in air which fuelled the flames.

Soon after the fire broke out, smoke surged into the station at the top of the tunnel with such intensity that three people waiting there were also killed.

The fire in the tunnel was so fierce that when rescuers finally reached the site only the train's twisted metal base remained.

Austrian police said it could be up to two weeks before the dead are identified.

In Context
The death toll rose to 155, including German world champion freestyle skier Sandra Schmitt and a group of children on a ski club outing. There were 12 survivors.

More than half of the victims were Austrians; the others included 37 Germans, 8 Americans and a British man. Thirty-seven of the victims were under the age of 20.

The tragedy was blamed on a faulty heater. A report by seven experts found the heater, at the back of the train, ignited oil dripping from a system for hydraulic brakes. The fire then spread to the plastic-coated floor.

In 2004 a court in Austria acquitted 16 people charged over the fire - mainly train operators, suppliers and inspectors.

The judge in Salzburg ruled there was insufficient evidence to find them to blame for the blaze.

There was an outraged reaction to the verdict, and in September 2005 eight of the 16 went to a retrial on appeal.

Separate trials are under way in the US and Germany, where lawyers are seeking billions of dollars in compensation for relatives of the victims.

The railway was never re-opened. Instead, it was replaced by a new above-ground gondola cableway opened in December 2001.

The tragedy remains the worst-ever Alpine skiing disaster.

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