Hannibal's army of skiers flees `white hell' of the Alps, vowing never to return

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The Independent Online
BEDRAGGLED LIKE Hannibal's army after its ill-fated trek through the Alps, holidaymakers poured out of the white hell of the Paznaun valley yesterday, many vowing never to return. The train out of Landeck, the beachhead of the international airlift, was packed with survivors from Galtur and Valzur, the two resorts devastated by avalanches earlier in the week.

Psychologists roamed the carriages, offering quick-fix therapy - this is, after all, Sigmund Freud's homeland.

The patients were easily identifiable. They were the ones clutching sports bags stuffed to the rims; the only piece of luggage allowed on to the helicopters that flew them to safety.

They all had a wild stare, and were enveloped in over-powering body odour. While their mobile telephones functioned even after the disaster, the victims had been robbed of simpler facilities of modern civilisation. They could converse with the other side of the globe, but were unable to take a wash. The army barracks that received them had not been kitted out with showers for 6,000 people.

And the people of Galtur had something else in common. Their initial fright had turned into anger, with one question on everybody's lips: "Why weren't we told of the dangers?"

Galtur's only escape route, the road through the narrow gorge leading to Landeck, had been blocked a week ago. Only the foolhardy went skiing, and as the snowdrifts closed in, even those eventually decided not to risk it.

Cooped up in their chalets, the guests tried to find indoor diversions, patiently waiting for the end of their incarceration. It was all a bit inconvenient, but there was no inkling of anyone's life being in peril.

On the contrary. "On Monday afternoon there was a meeting with the people from the local avalanche committee," recalls Stan Berings, a Dutch survivor of Galtur. "They said to us, `There is no problem. No danger at all. There hasn't been an avalanche here for hundreds of years'. There was only a little information available.

"We were watching TV and someone said: `Hey, look, they're saying there is a level five avalanche warning for Galtur'." Level five is the highest. Still, the experts reassured the tourists that Galtur was immune.

The next day, at 4pm, the lethal cloud of powdery snow struck at 150 miles an hour. Those caught out in the streets died instantly. The avalanche cleared a path 100 metres wide through the resort, tossing buildings aside like so many doll's houses. There was simply no escape.

Even those who had played safe by staying indoors were vulnerable. It was pot luck whose building stood in the way of the elements, and on what floor they were staying.

The path of the unpredicted catastrophe could not be foretold. The sirens sounded after what many assumed had been an explosion. By yesterday, 37 bodies had been recovered after the avalanches and one girl was still missing.

A ski-lift operator from Galtur confirms that the professionals had been aware of the possibility of disaster, and were surprised by the avalanche committee's assessment. "I simply do not understand why they underestimated the danger," said the man, asking that his name be withheld. "It was like dynamite up there. People shouldn't play with it."

In Valzur, a smaller resort down the valley, the tourists had at least been forewarned by the fate of neighbouring Galtur. The avalanche committee could therefore chart the direction of the coming disaster.

"We had already had two smaller avalanches," says Styn Carron, a Belgian holidaymaker. "We were told which part of the village was in danger, and which relatively safe. This turned out to be the case."

On Wednesday afternoon Mr Carron was in the safer zone, protected to some extent by trees. "I was watching TV, heard a bang and the TV set fell down." Trapped in his room, he calmly packed his belongings and hunkered down for the night. At daybreak the helicopters arrived.

Yet despite the warning, seven people perished in Valzur, in the area officially described as "less safe". They had chosen to stay there on that fatal afternoon.

The people of Landeck, who live off tourism, have been appalled with the way they feel tourists have been deliberately put at risk.

The exceptional weather had been forecast more than two weeks ago. In their minds, the road to Galtur should have then been closed and preparations made for a mass evacuation. Instead, the local authorities made a business- friendly decision. The road stayed open, until buried by the heaviest snowfall seen in the Tyrol in nearly 50 years.

The responsibility for all those lost lives should not, though, be attributed entirely to Tyrolese greed. The local economy lives off the snow, and the thrill that comes with it. Tourists pampered by their mundane urban lives come here seeking a light work-out and a taste of danger. If the Tyrol shuts down, they will go looking for action somewhere else.

But Tyrol, awaiting the worst avalanches yet as the deadly white blanket begins to melt and slips towards the chalets in the valleys, is open for business. The hotels are fully booked throughout the region.

The trains that arrived at Landeck yesterday morning were disgorging thousands of people dressed in designer anoraks, armed with virgin skis. They had heard of the wonderful powder snow of the Paznaun valley, and cannot wait to try out their new gear. Let nobody say that they have not been warned.