Snow rescue fatally delayed

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SUN was shining brightly in Galtur yesterday, and children were frolicking in the snow. It could have been a picture from a tour brochure. Look in the other direction, though, and it is as if the picture had been torn in half.

Yesterday the death toll from the avalanches which sliced through two resorts in the Austrian Tyrol on Tuesday and Wednesday was confirmed at 38 after the body of the final victim - a 12-year-old German girl - was excavated from the snow. As journalists reached Galtur five days after the disaster, the first impression was of a strange contrast between the destruction seen from above, and the absence of sound at ground level. It felt as though there should still be echoes from a titanic explosion.

Once the helicopter's rotors ceased spinning at the eastern end of Galtur, the silence descended. Only a few people were out and about, including two boys, Johannes, 6, and his brother Andreas, 9, who were digging a car out of the snow.

Closer to the centre, beneath the church, there was more life - a snow plough excavating the fire station, cars being towed from the vanished western fringe of the village to the part that is still standing. Beyond the church, though, the picture changed abruptly. It was not unlike the images from Bosnia - tidy, prosperous houses, pizzerias and discos backing on to a no-man's-land of ruins.

At House Heidi, there is feverish activity. Half-a-dozen men are on top of the remains of the roof, nailing on new planks. On one side of the building, the tiles protecting the walls have been shorn off by some primeval force. And all around, amid the remains of the houses, there are two-storey- high piles of dirty grey snow and rubble. There is white snow only at the top, 50ft or more high.

Standing on top of one heap was Tony Palin, 58, the managing director of a Manchester company that makes winter clothing for the British Army. "When I arrived here I was staying at the Hotel Luggi," he said. "There it is." Half the hotel he was pointing at had gone, sawn in two by the avalanche. From there it was easy to chart the path of destruction to the summit of the sheer cliffs where the avalanche had begun.

Local people did not want to talk to the press, but Mr Palin described what happened on Tuesday. "The avalanche happened just behind the church, where the road takes a sharp left. You cannot imagine all that snow - every hour, every day since the Thursday before. There is no way anyone could have predicted that."

In fact, the weather service had accurately forecast three metres of snow in five days, but no one believed it. Even in the Alps, you do not normally get that much, and certainly not spread out across such a wide area. But this year belongs to the Cassandras of meteorology, whose wild guesses, if anything, had proved over-cautious. From Haute Savoie in France, across the Valais ranges in Switzerland and all the way to the Austrian Tyrol, strange things have been happening. For three weeks snow has been falling incessantly, only to be loosened by north-easterly gales and sudden thaws. In the wake of the freakish weather, at least 70 people lie dead and villages across three countries are in ruins.

In Galtur alone, entire families from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark were wiped out. Three generations of the Schulz family from Germany were lost, including the 91-year-old grandmother.

The local community also took a heavy toll. The Kern family had been running a hotel for decades. In 1981, their restaurant, named Gempsspitz, was destroyed by an avalanche. Three years later, two children on holiday were killed in their sleep as another snow slide struck their hotel. The Kerns decided to build somewhere else, on ground declared safe. That is where Tuesday's avalanche reached them, killing 17-year-old Bernadette, her mother Anna, and grandmother Paula Zangerl.

Mr Palin was about 70 yards from where Austria's worst avalanche in nearly half a century struck: "I got back to the hotel room at ten to four. Suddenly there was a loud whooshing sound, and a lady was screaming at the end of the corridor. So we rushed out to see if we could help. There was a driving blizzard.

"We tried to help the people at the back. The roof was hanging over. The people didn't want to come out. I think they were shocked." Mr Palin helped to pull out one family.

Then he got on with his holiday. He decided not to join the helicopter evacuation that took thousands of tourists out of the area last week. "I just didn't want to leave. A lot of people seemed to be panicking. I said, `Sod that, I'm British.' I'm staying."

Survivors coming out of Galtur spoke harrowingly of the interminable hours between Tuesday's catastrophe and the arrival of help. "A lot of women and children were crying," recalled Rob Debets, a Dutch holidaymaker. We waited and waited, but the helicopters took a long time coming."

Some of the victims might still be alive if the rescuers had come sooner: certainly the first day was a shambles. When Galtur was buried, no one seemed to be in charge. According to the Austrian press, local politicians had been distracted by the campaign for next month's regional elections. The army mobilised what it could, but its three night-vision-equipped helicopters were idling by the Slovak and Hungarian borders. The last large Austrian helicopter capable of airlifting excavators had been sold to Israel back in the Eighties. No one flew to Galtur that night.

Left to their own devices, holidaymakers and locals grabbed torches and organised rescue parties. First-aid boxes in cars that could be reached were raided. There was only one local doctor, but another 20 were found among the tourists. The work was hampered, though, by another fatal mistake. Emergency equipment had been stored at the fire station which, as it turned out, had lain directly in the path of the avalanche.

By the evening, offers of foreign help were pouring in, but Vienna prevaricated. The large US helicopters which were to prove decisive in the evacuation only got the green light from the Austrians on Wednesday. By the time they reached the Tyrol, stormy weather had closed in again, and they were grounded.

Wednesday was a terrible day. As the Austrian helicopters shuttled from Landeck to Galtur, taking mountain rescue teams in and survivors out, news came of another avalanche in the nearby village of Valzur. One pilot displayed exceptional courage, flying in when no one thought it possible, and rescuing a four-year-old child from certain death. At least seven people, though, could not be saved.

When the international airlift did swing into action, two days after the first avalanche, it worked surprisingly smoothly. Thousands of people a day were brought to safety.

In the wake of the disaster there is much discussion about the wisdom and morality of a tourist industry which has put, sometimes by accident but occasionally wantonly, customers' lives at risk. But the tourists will be back. Mr Palin, for one, seemed undaunted by his experiences. "I would come here again," he said. "I mean, it's a beautiful place."