Eleventh victim is found in snow

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The Independent Online
AN ELEVENTH victim of the deadly avalanche that hit Chamonix in France on Tuesday was uncovered by rescue workers yesterday.

The body of a young woman in her twenties was found under 10 feet of densely packed snow, 50 yards from the chalet where she had been staying. Searches are continuing for the body of a twelfth presumed victim, the woman's companion.

The area's under-prefect, Georges Ambroise, said the possibility remained that other victims would be found but no other local people or tourists had been declared missing.

The chief public prosecutor for the region yesterday visited the site of the avalanche - in the Mont Blanc massif, 10 miles east of Chamonix - to decide whether a criminal investigation is justified. The 18 chalets crushed by the avalanche, many of them recently built, were in a "white" no-risk zone, formally approved by local and regional authorities 18 years ago. The prosecutor must decide whether there was negligence in mapping the zones, possibly under commercial pressure to find new sites for building holiday homes and hotels in the narrow Chamonix valley, one of the most popular skiing destinations in France.

Local officials and guides said all local experience pointed to the safety of the village of Montroc, which claimed to have more snow than any other French ski-resort.

The avalanche crashed through the village, ripped a 200-yard wide swath through fir trees, crossed a river and a road and continued for 50 to 100 yards uphill to swallow chalets on the opposite slope.

Experts continued to blame the appaling weather - from Sunday to Wednesday, the Chamonix area had four days of storms, which deposited 10 feet of soft, powdery snow on the mountain tops.

The experts said the avalanche was almost certainly of an "aerosol" type - so called because it starts as a cloud of loosely packed snow in the high slopes, and then sucks up harder-packed snow and ice as it heads downhill, at speeds up to 100mph.

The effect is like a combination of an avalanche and a whirlwind. Such phenomena are common high in the mountains but seldom reach the inhabited valley floors.

A dozen smaller avalanches were reported in the area on Wednesday night, one briefly blocking the main road west of Chamonix and another that was checked by avalanche defences just short of the village of Les Bossons. More than 200 people have been evacuated from areas considered at risk.

Those killed in Tuesday's avalanche included Daniel Lagarde, a safety expert at theGrands-Montets ski slope, his wife and four-year-old granddaughter. The Lagarde's 12-year-old son, Raphael, is recovering from hypothermia after being found trapped between packed snow and a shattered wall 10 hours after the family's chalet was flattened.

"We had already found two other bodies and suddenly a wall collapsed," said Raymond Ducroz, part of the rescue team. "Behind, in the beam of a searchlight, we saw a child's head. He groaned and we knew that he was alive."

All five members of a family from the Jura region of France, father, mother and three children aged 11 to 13, also died.

One hostel manager in Argentiere said yesterday that there had been a mass exodus of skiers and tourists from the valley in the past two days.

"There is a panic," he said. "Normally the village would be packed with people at this time of year."