Alpine paradise was smothered at 60mph buried by 60mph wall of death

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The Independent Online
MICHEL, a softly spoken man in his thirties, stood, weeping, between the enormous banks of snow in the village street. "No one dreamed anything like this could happen," he said.

"These houses were in the safest possible zone for avalanches. But what does anyone of us really know? When the mountain decides, the mountain decides. There is nothing you can do. I have lost people that I loved a great deal. Here, we have all lost people that we loved a great deal. The whole village is crying."

He turned away, unable to say any more.

The Chamonix valley was in a state of shock - and fear - yesterday after a monumental avalanche crushed 18 chalets in the hamlet of Montroc, at 4,600ft in the Mont Blanc massif, killing at least 10 people, including a family of five, an elderly couple and their four-year-old granddaughter. Two other people were missing: 20 were rescued, including two Americans and a 12-year-old boy, found under several feet of snow and rubble. All the dead were French.

Rescue work was continuing last night, with heavy digging and lifting equipment but hope of finding further survivors had been virtually lost. With temperatures falling to minus 7C, the snow had packed too hard for hands or shovels to penetrate.

The 150-yard-wide, 18ft-high avalanche crashed into the valley bottom at an estimated 60mph. It crossed a stream and one part swept on for 30 to 40 yards uphill to consume a group of chalets on the opposite slope.

Hence the sense of shock and fear among local people. "I have lived here all my life and I have never heard of an avalanche so powerful, so low down in the mountains, and I have never heard of an avalanches capable of going uphill," said one gendarme, resting in the village of Argentiere, two kilometres away, after hours of digging in the packed snow and debris.

Other buildings, some local homes and some holiday chalets, were carried 400 metres down the valley by the remainder of the avalanche. "It's horrible. There is nothing left," said Jean-Louis Verdier, the assistant mayor of Chamonix, 10 miles from the disaster scene. "Everything was wiped away. Where the chalets should be, there is a big hole."

Jean-Marie Pavy, 49, who was staying in a house just outside the path of the avalanche said: "The chalet next to ours disappeared. It was pushed across the road. There were blocks of cement everywhere ... It was the apocalypse."

The 12-year-old French boy was pulled from several feet of the snow and rubble by rescuers working with sonic equipment and sniffer dogs after being trapped for several hours. He was taken to hospital with extreme hypothermia where his condition appeared to be desperate. But he was said to be recovering strongly yesterday.

This was the only real success of an arduous night for 200 rescue workers. After an initial flurry of rescues, all the victims recovered were dead, including the couple and their children aged 11 to 13. The four-year-old girl found in the wreckage of a chalet near the bodies of her grand-parents seemed to be just alive but was declared dead on arrival in hospital in Chamonix.

Gendarmes and firemen returning from the rescue scene yesterday said nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. The highest level of avalanche alert had been given the day before, but the homes in Montroc were not regarded as under threat. The chalets were in a "white zone", regarded as almost completely free of danger. "We've had six feet of snow in three days," one fireman said. "No one can remember now falls like that. When you have that much fresh snow, piling up on other unstable soft snow, anything can happen."

The danger from avalanches has been endlessly studied, plotted and tracked over the years; defences have been erected and buildings banned in the danger zones. The process is so old and so elaborate that each large, avalanche site has a name, like the mountains themselves. The wall of snow which fell on Montroc was called the "Avalanche des Pecleray". It was regarded as the Alpine equivalent of an extinct volcano: it had not dislodged itself and crashed down the mountain since 1908.

The last serious avalanche incident of any kind in this area, high in the valley of the Arve, on the shoulder of Mont Blanc, near the French- Swiss border, was 21 years ago. An avalanche fell on the village of Tour, next to Montroc, destroying two chalets and killing five people.

Meteorologists have predicted that, partly because of the disruption of weather patterns by global warming, snow falls in the Alps will tend to be greater, and later in the season. This has certainly been the case this year, with falls of six feet of snow in the Chamonix area since the weekend. If the pattern continues, all the conventional wisdom about safe and dangerous zones for avalanches will have to be torn up.

There have been dozens of other avalanches in the French Alps in the last two days, most occurring safely high in the mountains. Three British holidaymakers - Paul Macey, 28,from Bristol, Karen Tinner, 28, also from Bristol, and Maddie Sidanie, 32, from Oxford - were engulfed by a snow slide at Tignes les Brevieres, 50 miles south of Chamonix. They were not deeply buried and managed to scramble free.

Rescuers also found the body yesterday of a 28-year-old Briton who disappeared in an avalanche while skiing off-piste near Courchevel, south of Chemonix.

Police and prosecutors have issued warnings that tough action will be taken against skiers who ignore warnings of avalanche dangers and leave marked trails.

The avalanche at Montroc had no such obvious cause; and it was all the more terrifying for that reason.