Second avalanche hits resorts as storms halt rescue mission

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The Independent Online
DISASTER STRUCK again for thousands of holidaymakers imprisoned by snow in the Tyrolese ski resort of Galtur yesterday as a new avalanche devastated the nearby resort of Valzur, while storms cut off their tenuous link to the outside world.

An army spokesman, Major Thomas Schonherr, said three helicopters had set off for Valzur, but their arrival could not be be guaranteed. "It will be extremely difficult because it is snowing so heavily," he said.

Major Schonherr described the latest snowfall in Valzur as serious: "It was another major avalanche," he said. "Three houses were destroyed."

The death toll from Tuesday's storms in Galtur rose to 16 yesterday.

The Austrian news agency APA said that out of nine dead identified so far, six were German holidaymakers, including two small children. The other three were Austrian nationals, including a six-year-old girl and a pregnant woman killed in her home with her mother-in-law.

The provincial governor of Tyrol, Wendelin Weingartner, confirmed that no one had been found alive since specialist rescue teams entered Galtur early yesterday from nearby Landeck.

"That is the sad truth," he said. "But we hope, nevertheless, that it might be possible to find someone in the remains of houses."

The total number missing in both towns was at least 32, including 26 people from Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. It was not known whether any British people were among them.

Experts said victims stood the best chance of survival within the first 15 minutes after an avalanche.

It was not clear if Galtur would have to be completely evacuated because of the continuing avalanche risk.

The local police chief, Anton Koler, said preparations were being made to evacuate up to 5,000 people from the region. By early yesterday 1,000 tourists had been flown out of Galtur with the injured and another 400 were waiting to leave.

"The situation is getting really dramatic," he said. "Morale will be at rock bottom and there will certainly be a threat of panic. People of course want out as soon as possible, but that's not possible."

As darkness fell in the Alps, Austrian army helicopters that had flown in to the area since first light were grounded again because of atrocious weather.

Earlier in the day, emergency workers helped by sniffer dogs were frantically trying to dig the latest victims from their icy tombs. They managed to pull out four of the injured, one of whom died later.

The outside world, meanwhile, looks on helplessly. Promised international help in the shape of 10 giant US Black Hawk helicopters - brought in from peace-keeping preparations for Kosovo - were left stranded in the Tyrolese capital of Innsbruck.

The road leading to the twin resorts of Ischgl and Galtur ends just outside the village of Landeck some 18 miles away.

If there is a break in the weather, the Austrian army hopes to start cutting a path through the mountains of snow.

Until then, the helicopter remains the only hope for those trapped on the wrong side, including hundreds of stranded Britons.

The helicopter shuttle began at dawn yesterday, taking off at five-minute intervals from a makeshift base next to Landeck's army barracks. Their grey silhouettes against the all-encompassing white of this ski resort made an eerie sight.

Marc van Corven, a Dutchman on holiday with his family at the resort of Ischgl, was awoken by the noise at 6.30am. "At first I was frightened, because I didn't understand what they were doing here. I didn't realise the situation was so bad."

They had endured three avalanches, each burying a section of their hotel, but every time the roof held. Ensconced in their idyll, they were blissfully ignorant of the tragedy which had engulfed the neighbouring village of Galtur. The children even enjoyed their ride on the helicopter on the way out, and Mr van Corven said he would go skiing again. "But not here," his wife interjects.

You could tell on the faces of people embarking from the helicopters which resort they had been evacuated from. The children from Ischgl skipped about, their faces beaming, after what must have been the adventure of a lifetime.

The children from Galtur were hushed, their parents visibly in a state of shock; many faces are puffed with exertion. The room set aside for psychological counselling is full with people who look as though they've just returned from hell.

There is an apocalyptic air to the entire village. When the helicopters were airborne, Landeck had the appearance of a military camp, the barracks guarded from television crews by soldiers wielding sub- machine guns. When they stopped, it was even worse: empty buses skidding by aimlessly in the heavy snow, rescue workers peering into the sky, as if trying to will the flakes to stop. And the winds to cease howling.

There is still some hope left. Thanks to the helicopters, special rescue teams, equipment, medical supplies and food reached the settlement for the first time in two days. One minor victory against the elements was chalked up when the equipment buried at the fire station of Galtur was liberated by the fresh hands.

The rescue teams, however, look shattered. In Landeck they were finally allowed to come off their shifts yesterday 20 hours after they had begun. For those marooned behind the unyielding mountains, maybe relief will come today.

But there is always the danger of fresh avalanches and deteriorating conditions. The small Austrian helicopters cannot ferry more than 400 people a day. The 4,000 stranded holidaymakers desperately await the arrival of the large American aircraft.

The Foreign Office has issued a number for anyone worried about relatives in the area. It is 0171-270-3000