170 killed in mountain train fire

Mystery over cause of fire which killed 170 young skiers on train deep inside an Austrian mountain
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The Independent Online

Experts on the scene of the worst disaster in the Alps in recent times were struggling last night to establish how fire broke out on a funicular railway train being drawn through a tunnel to an Austrian mountain-top, killing about 170 people, many of them children and teenagers. Austrian TV reported Britons were among the dead.

Experts on the scene of the worst disaster in the Alps in recent times were struggling last night to establish how fire broke out on a funicular railway train being drawn through a tunnel to an Austrian mountain-top, killing about 170 people, many of them children and teenagers. Austrian TV reported Britons were among the dead.

Flames engulfed the train, packed with skiers and snowboarders, when it was about 600 yards into a tunnel on the slopes of Kitzsteinhorn mountain, near Salzburg. Experts believe the "chimney effect" of the tunnel sucked in air from below, making the flames spread quickly and producing dense smoke and fumes.

Only eight people managed to escape with their lives: they broke a window at the rear and fled to the lower entrance of the tunnel, avoiding the fumes. Others who fled up the tunnel were asphyxiated, as were three skiers waiting at a stopping point near the top. The black cloud pouring from the upper end of the tunnel was so thick that some skiers had to be helicoptered from the glacier above, 8,000ft above sea level, suffering from smoke inhalation.

More than a dozen helicopters and scores of ambulances rushed to the scene of the disaster, above the town of Kaprun, but there was little they could do. Rescue workers who entered the tunnel hours later said the flames were so intense that only the twisted chassis of the 90ft train remained.

Most of the victims were thought to be young Austrian and German skiers who had decided to go up the mountain on the spur of the moment, on the first day of the skiing season in the area. But two American women who had travelled with a party from a military base in Germany said their 23 companions were missing. The women had decided to go shopping instead of going skiing with the rest.

Last night the Foreign Office said Salzburg television was reporting that there had been Britons on board, but no information had been passed on to the embassy. "We are trying to get confirmation from the local authorities," said an official.

There were few clues as to how the fire began. There was no engine on board either of the two carriages, which were pulled along the four kilometre tunnel by a main cable supported by auxiliary ones.

Reports that the fire broke out in the compartment occupied by the cable-car attendant suggest that it could have been caused by sparks thrown out by faulty machinery or a breaking cable. One auxiliary cable is known to have snapped, but it is not clear whether that happened before or during the blaze.

Experts who managed to enter the tunnel with firefighters despite the thick smoke and fumes reported that only the metal frame of the train was left after the fire.

Klaus Eisenkolb, an engineer who had inspected the train in the past, said it was fitted with safety systems to bring the vehicle to an immediate halt if one of the cables snapped. He could not understand how it had caught fire. "It is not supposed to burn because the materials used are fire-resistant," he said.

One early suggestion was that the materials were not as resistant as they should have been. Another was that some passengers had been carrying highly flammable goods with them to the summit such as gas canisters for cooking, which caught fire with an intensity that no material could resist.

The fire started at the rear of the train and spread quickly. "The fire was drawn upwards like in a chimney," a spokesman for the Salzburg state government said.

Christian Wakolbinger, an eyewitness, said the smokehad even affected people in the mountain station at the top of the 4km railway.

"The smoke swept up the tunnel so quickly that some people in the Alpine Centre were affected by smoke poisoning," he said. They were flown out by helicopter for medical treatment.

Provincial and national authorities declared a weekend of mourning for the deaths, which occurred in the same area as a devastating avalanche last winter, which killed 12 people.

A Channel Tunnel fire expert said the fire would have been "extremely difficult" to tackle. "It is a difficult scenario," said senior divisional officer Ian Muir of Kent Fire Brigade.

"For firefighters the usual problems are getting access to the fire in the tunnel and getting ventilation in a confined space. Without ventilation the smoke will be hard for firefighters to get through, but if there is some ventilation they will face difficulties coming up against the flow of smoke.

"The longer the tunnel the worse the build-up of smoke and poisonous gases will be."

Mr Muir leads the brigade's dedicated Channel Tunnel firefighting team and is a veteran of the November 1996 fire in the Channel Tunnel.

Austrian police issued an emergency hotline number, 0043 654 720000.

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