Tragedy in the Alps: `You can't tell them, but you know there is no hope'

FOR A man who has not slept a wink for two days and has just returned from Galtur, Gerhardt Simperl does not look too bad.

"You have to suppress your feelings and get on with the job," he says with a smile.

He has worked for 35 years for the mountain rescue team at Landeck, brought many people to safety, and is happy to demonstrate the workings of his main tool of trade. The long stick with which he pokes through the snow is assembled by screwing together pieces nestling in the side pocket of his rucksack. "You can feel in your fingertips straight away whether the obstacle below is a person or just debris," he says. "It's a wonderful feeling when you pull someone out alive."

Under Galtur's blanket of crushed snow, he found four people, including a child. But as he relates the rest of his story, the smile fades. "All of them were dead. I found no one alive."

His long years of service had not prepared him for the horrors of Galtur. "You cannot imagine what it was like. Buildings smashed into a thousand pieces, the panic of people who had lost someone, and, worst of all, those children; eight pulled out dead. "You dig and dig, and then you find them, and you see the terror in their faces - you never forget that."

One child, he said, had been having a bath as the avalanche struck at 250kph on Tuesday. "It pushed the concrete wall and the tub behind it 100 metres down the valley." That is how the child was found, crushed by the masonry and the snow.

"The worst is the reaction of relatives," he continues, struggling to maintain his composure. "They never give up hope, especially if it is a child buried. They keep waiting. You can't tell them, but you know from experience there's no hope."