Alcohol blamed as five killed in crowd crush at Austrian snowboarding event

THE MAYOR of the west Austrian city of Innsbruck yesterday called for a ban on alcohol at outdoor sports events after five young women were crushed to death and dozens injured on Saturday night at a snowboarding event.

Four of the dead were Austrian teenagers and the fifth was a 21-year- old Australian tourist from Sydney.

Mr Herwig van Staa, quoted in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, said that no alcohol should be sold at the "Berg Silvester" festival at the end of this month. Many spectators at mountain sports events warm themselves with mulled wine. A crowd of 80,000 spectators is expected to watch competitive skiing and ski-jumping at Berg Silvester.

The Innsbruck mayor told state television that alcohol may have played a role in Saturday's tragedy, adding that "many youths were heavily intoxicated". Beer and hot mulled wine were sold at the event.

Rescue workers and police said it appeared that a crowd of people leaving the Olympic stadium had slipped on an icy slope and slid into a barrier that gave way, causing a pile up and panic in the mass behind.

"A large crowd was lying on the ground ... and another crowd from behind pushed against them," Michael Wildner, an emergency worker with the Red Cross, told Austrian state television. Dozens of others were trampled and 16 people remained in hospital yesterday, four of them in comas with life-threatening injuries, Dr Norbert Mutz, at the Innsbruck hospital, said.

Mr Wildner said emergency workers arrived quickly and were able to move the crowd back into the stadium, preventing any further injuries. The accident happened shortly after 10 pm.

The scene apparently became so chaotic at one point that a police officer fired a shot in the air when ambulance crews rushing to help were nearly trampled. Reports said the covered bodies of the victims remained on the ground for several hours.

Arnold Stattmann, director of the Innsbruck police, said the stadium had been prepared with optimal security and an extra 200 men had been hired.

Several sports associations have said the stadium was ill-equipped to handle the crowd of 40,000 that attended the sold-out snowboarding competitions on Saturday. Built in 1964 for the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, the stadium is to be renovated in 2001. A World Cup snowboarding event on the Kitzsteinhorn glacier near Kaprun scheduled for yesterday was cancelled because of safety fears.

The Innsbruck disaster was the second fatal tragedy in Austria in three days and will raise further questions about public safety in the country.

Six people were killed after a three-storey apartment building exploded in the town of Wilhemsburg on Thursday night, apparently after a gas leak. A further 60 people have died in accidents in Austria in the last 18 months, in a series of disasters including a cave-in at a mine, an avalanche and a fire in a mountain tunnel.