Tragedy in the Alps: Boy found alive under Tyrol avalanche

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The Independent Online
THE INTERNATIONAL airlift involving helicopters from Austria, the United States and Germany brought thousands of holidaymakers to safety yesterday from the valley in Tyrol where avalanches killed at least 32 people earlier in the week.

Among those rescued and evacuated was a four-year-old Austrian boy, who had been pronounced dead on Wednesday after being buried for two hours in the snow. Nevertheless, he has made a full recovery and even smiled yesterday.

Six people are still missing, but the Austrian army was preparing to pull out all rescue workers from the devastated village of Galtur last night, because of the growing threat of further avalanches. The road leading to the stricken villages remained blocked and officials were due to decide this morning whether to start clearing it.

For the first time in a week, the Alps showed their gentler face yesterday, basking in glorious sunshine. The sky above Landeck, the centre of the Austrian operation, swarmed with helicopters ferrying people out of danger and bringing special teams equipped with shovels in the other direction.

The US Blackhawks, diverted from possible duties in Kosovo, flew in formations of four. Too heavy to land at the local barracks, they began their missions from a motorway a few miles outside the village.

The arrival of foreign aircraft nevertheless caused acute embarrassment to the government in Vienna.

The larger craft used by the Germans and Americans exposed the shortcomings of Austria's armed forces, saddled, according to opposition politicians, with obsolete technology because of successive defence cuts. Many Austrians found it particularly humiliating that their neutral country had to be helped out by Germany.

Unaware of the storm brewing in the capital, the brighter weather in Tyrol was welcomed by the pilots. But the sudden rise in temperatures introduced new perils, especially along the road that used to connect the villages of Ischgl and Galtur to the world. The narrow valley had received three metres of snow in the space of five days, much of it hanging perilously over the road. As temperatures rose and the snow began to melt, officials warned of an "extremely high risk" of more avalanches in the coming days.

Most of those arriving on the helicopters to Landeck were cheerful, but those rescued from Valzur, a small resort between Ischgl and Galtur, had harrowing tales to tell.

Michael Holland, a Dutch colonel, was separated from his wife and three daughters as the avalanche struck on Wednesday afternoon. "I heard a sound like thunder, and then a second bang, and the house filled with snow," he recalls.

"My apartment was in the basement. The rest of the house was blown away. When I crawled outside through the window, I saw cars tossed all over like matchboxes. The rest of the building was down the valley." He went searching for his family and found them safe and well in a part of the village that had been protected by trees. He then spent all night digging for survivors.

"We chose this area for our skiing holiday because there was a good chance of snow here," Colonel Holland said. "But this year it was too much."