Tyrol in black for Alps victims

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The Independent Online
CHURCH BELLS tolled across the Tyrol yesterday for the 38 souls claimed by the mountains in Austria's worst week of disasters for 50 years.

"Tyrol is in mourning," the province's governor, Wendelin Weingartner, said at an ecumenical service in Innsbruck. Public buildings were draped in black and people young and old packed the regional capital's Stiftskirche (church) to pay their respects.

Sixteen wreathed coffins lay in a row at the church's cloister, marked with the names of the victims, mostly Germans, yet to be repatriated. A guard of honour, tall men in traditional feathered hats and colourful Tyrolean uniforms, kept vigil.

The Netherlands and Denmark had already taken home their dead. The people of Galtur and Valzur kept their own in the valley of the Paznaun, now for ever associated with death.

"A difficult week has burdened our beautiful land," said the bishop of Innsbruck, Alois Kothgasser. In the chilly pews under the stuccoed roof of the church, men and women sobbed through the most haunting passages of the requiem. Some were unable to muster the strength to stand for the Lord's Prayer.

Relatives sat at the front, shoulders hunched, faces buried in trembling hands. One by one, the names, ages and hometowns of their loved ones were read out. A candle was lit for each by members of the mountain rescue teams whose awful job it had been to dig the corpses out of their icy graves.

Through this gut-wrenching roll call, the Stiftkirche's bells rang again, flooding the city and the country watching on live television with the sound of grief.

"The violence of Nature has cut a deep wound," said the Austrian Chancellor, Viktor Klima.

He had come from the capital, Vienna, to express the whole country's sympathy for the bereaved people of Tyrol, and to thank Austrians and foreigners who had "selflessly helped save and protect lives".

The countries that had volunteered to help were praised by all speakers. "Our land was engulfed by solidarity," said Mr Weingartner.

The bishop echoed him. "We experienced love and solidarity." He spoke emotionally about meeting the four-year old Austrian boy pulled from the snow who has now been showered with gifts from every corner of the country.

"He was saved by pilots and doctors who had never given up hope," said the bishop.

Debates have been raging through Austria since the first avalanche struck Galtur last Tuesday. Mr Weingartner said only: "Lessons must be learnt. We have seen that Man is powerless against the forces of Nature."

Outside the sanctity of the Stiftskirche, his critics asked whether Man contributed to the disaster by forcefully treading where he has no business. And if Man is indeed impotent, then perhaps the tourists and residents should not be misled by Titanic-style boasts of absolute safety.

The day before the catastrophe struck, Galtur's guests had been assured that there was no danger. In the village levelled only once before in 300 years by an avalanche, the survivors are still picking through the rubble of their lives.

Along the road that hugs the River Paznaun, Nature was up to her old tricks. The snow-ploughs had swept it clean in the morning, but the danger of avalanches forced its closure in the afternoon, slamming the door behind the new intake of holidaymakers.

n Three people were killed at Stalden in Switzerland yesterday when a helicopter belonging to an air rescue company crashed while on a surveillance mission.

The Air Glacier helicopter had been flying over the Matter valley, near the southern Swiss resort of Zermatt.

All helicopters in the area have in recent days been busy identifying areas most at risk of avalanches, ferrying supplies and evacuating thousands of people cut off by heavy snow.