A terrible guessing game on the mountain of death

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The Independent Online

They were playing a ghastly guessing game in this neat Alpine village nestled under the Kitzsteinhorn yesterday, a game they played only eight months ago when tragedy last struck these idyllic Austrian slopes: who will return and who will not?

They were playing a ghastly guessing game in this neat Alpine village nestled under the Kitzsteinhorn yesterday, a game they played only eight months ago when tragedy last struck these idyllic Austrian slopes: who will return and who will not?

As the sun went down on the houses and shops, rings of tiny candles flickered in the dusk. Conditions are perfect for skiing, but Kaprun is empty of tourists now. They have left the town to its grief.

In one restaurant, as the hours passed and there was no sign of her friend, a waitress stood and wept. In other hotels and bars across the town others were waiting for colleagues who did not turn up for work after what should have been a perfect day snowboarding or skiing on the slopes.

The few locals on the street were outnumbered by the hundreds of police and rescue officials who congregated on the community as the tragedy unfolded. The village hall was draped in black, the Austrian flags were at half-mast. A steady stream of people arrived at the local youth hostel, turned into a makeshift information station, trying to identify who could still be missing.

In March, Kaprun mourned when a massive avalanche on the other side of the mountain killed some of its residents.

For the people who live and work here, the reality of the latest tragedy began to sink in yesterday. At least 155 people died on Saturday morning when they were burnt to death or trapped and suffocated as the hi-tech funicular train was destroyed by a 1,000C fire that raced through the tunnel consuming everything in its path.

More than 24 hours later, they still do not know for sure the names of all the dead. Only 12 are known to have survived the inferno.

At a Mass at Kaprun's church yesterday, the priest, Peter Hofer, reflected the shock and incomprehension of villagers in his sermon: "We understand Christ's wail on the cross, 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'"

This weekend should have been so different because Kaprun was hosting a snowboarding festival; some of those heading to the competition were as young as 10.

Teenagers from nearby Mittersill high school cancelled a festival party due to be held on Saturday night. Instead there was a memorial service for the dead. At the centre of the floor were three caskets, containing bodies of the only victims immediately identified. On the floor around them were vases of dozens of deep red, long-stemmed roses - some of 500 bought for the senior pupils' end of year party, so the boys could hand one to the girls who caught their eye. At the end of the night the girl with the most roses would be crowned the Rose Queen. "There won't be a Rose Queen this year," said Nina Kraguljac, one of the girls due to be at the celebration.

Hranz Pisek stares at the silent, white peak of the Kitzsteinhorn mountain from the door to his now closed ski shop. Up there, rescuers are still trying to identify the charred bodies of the dead. At least 33 are burnt beyond recognition and DNA and dental testing will have to be done before their identities can be confirmed. Many of the victims are believed to be children and young adults.

"Between the avalanche and the fire, we have lost 200 people in a year,'' Mr Pisek tells me. One of his employees died in March. He is also a local ski instructor, and he fears the chief instructor at the skiing school is a victim. "He would have been on his way up the mountain that morning, the time the fire started,'' he said.

People are still trying to work out what time their friends would have been on the train and hoping those still missing will show up alive. Some have lost so many. Mr Pisek knows for certain two more friends died and another five are missing. "We went on the train all the time," Mr Pisek said. "For us it was as natural as going next door to buy cigarettes."

There was no sign of the disaster at the entrance to the tunnel, a tiny opening in the mountainside that must have been the last thing the victims saw before they entered the dark space beyond. There was just an empty ticket booth with a sign that said: "We are mourning".

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