Families billed for failed attempt to rescue skiers

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The Independent Online

The families of two British snowboarders killed in an avalanche in the French Alps have expressed their anger at being chased by debt collectors over a £20,000 bill for the failed rescue attempt.

Sam Harber, 25, and James Rourke, 26, died while snowboarding off-piste in April last year. Despite the efforts of a French mountain rescue team, involving a helicopter and dog teams, neither man was saved after they were swept away by a 500-metre wide torrent of ice, snow and rock on Grande Motte, in the resort of Tignes.

Rescuers found Mr Rourke's body a day after the accident. But Mr Harber's body was not found until two months later - on what would have been his 26th birthday. Their families have been asked to pay about £10,000 each to cover rescue costs after the men's insurance company CNA refused to pay out.

If the accident had happened in Britain the debt would have died with the victims. But under French law, surviving relatives are liable to pay for the rescue as neither man had enough money left in his estate to meet the bill.

Now the helicopter company involved in the failed rescue attempt has appointed a French debt collection firm to try and get its money back from the parents of the extreme sports fans, who were in France working as ski chalet managers for the holiday firm VIP Snowline at the ski resort of Val d'Isère.

The two friends were experienced snowboarders and had gone off piste during their time off, despite weather reports forecasting a Factor Three risk of an avalanche which means "considerable" on a scale of one to five.

A small-print clause in the men's insurance policiesstated they were not covered for "exposure to danger which is reasonably foreseeable" and as a result, CNA insurance refused to pay the rescue bill.

The families have now been sent bills demanding they each pay £9,000 for the helicopter and £1,200 for the dog teams.

"It's so difficult to move on when you still have this situation hanging over you," said Barry Harber, who said his son had no chance of survival after the avalanche broke just 100 metres above where he and his friend were snowboarding.

Mr Harber, 59, a marketing consultant from Lawshall, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said that although off-piste skiing was included in his son's insurance, CNA refused to pay for the rescue attempts because it was claimed the two men ignored danger signs. "We now have to fight to not pay this money and we are so angry it has come to this. The rescue teams did such a good job and deserve to get paid but there is this massive grey area when it comes to this kind of insurance. We have been through enough without having to pay this money out as well."

Mr Harber said he wanted to warn other people they may not be covered by their insurance on holiday. "There must be hundreds of kids going out there thinking they've got cover off piste," he said.

Mr Rourke's father, Peter Rourke, 52, of Littlehampton, West Sussex, cannot pay the bill because he is a full-time carer for his wheelchair-bound wife Anne, 50. The families of both men have pledged to fight on, despite failing in two attempts to take their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service.