Austria halts all 'Alpine metros' as bodies recovered

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The Independent Online

Austria closed funicular railway trains similar to the disaster-stricken "Alpine metro" of Kaprun yesterday, while France and Germany ordered urgent safety checks on their own.

Austria closed funicular railway trains similar to the disaster-stricken "Alpine metro" of Kaprun yesterday, while France and Germany ordered urgent safety checks on their own.

As the Austrian police launched an investigation into possible negligence, the first victims of Saturday's blaze were flown to the nearby regional capital of Salzburg for identification. More than 160 people are feared to have diedin the country's worst ever accident.

Rescue workers were confronting appalling conditions in the tunnel of the Kitzsteinhorn, the snow-capped peak which rises above the small resort of Kaprun.

Water is seeping in, the walls are covered in soot and exuding toxic fumes. Weakened and deformed by Saturday's inferno, the rock is crumbling away, with large chunks dropping from the roof. Firefighters and specially trained police have to walk 700 metres down from the station on the summit to carry out their grisly task of gathering the remains.

Engineers have fitted a winch but the rescue effort is still proceeding very slowly. "The fire was so intense that the surroundings melted," explained Major Franz Lang, the policeman leading the recovery.

"We have to cut out, dissect, each victim. It has to be possible for pathologists to reconstruct what happened, and this will take some time," he said.

Even the experienced mountaineers in his team, Major Lang added, needed 15 minutes to walk down the 2,000 steps along the rails, and another 40 minutes to return.

As police worked through the list of the missing, they have established with "90 per cent certainty" that 159 people had probably died in the tunnel. The largest number - 92 - were Austrians, followed by 37 Germans, 10 Japanese, two Dutch, four Slovenes, eight Americans and one Czech. One Briton was also on the list: ski instructor Kevin Challis, a resident of Kaprun previously mistaken for an Austrian national.

It will take several weeks to be certain about the true identity of victims. Professor Edith Tutsch-Bauer, who leads the forensic team in Salzburg, said the bodies she had seen so far had been burnt very badly. "Characteristic physical features, such as nose and ears, cannot be recognised," she said. Dental records will help in some cases, but many bodies will require painstaking DNA analysis. She estimated that her team's work will be completed in four weeks.

While the bodies are being recovered, the technical experts who want to impound the wreckage must wait, leaving many questions unanswered. The cause of the fire has yet to be established. Various theories have been rebuffed by investigators, who say it is just too early to tell why a supposedly fireproof train being dragged up the tunnel by a cable became an inferno.

"There must have been a chain of several really unfortunate circumstances that caused this," said Ingo Karl, director of the Federation of Austrian Cable Car Companies.

"We considered a fire practically impossible," said Karl-Johann Hartig, head of the railway authority in the Austrian Transport Ministry, which approves cable cars, cog railways and ski lifts. "There are no motors, no fluids and everything is made of fire-proof materials."

Major Lang stressed that any dangerous substances like diesel or gas would have been transported by a special train.

The train company reported no problems before the disaster and the whole railway was checked two months ago. A full inspection in 1997 found no fault with the funicular and said fire safety and emergency drills were in good order.

"There are exercises covering emergency cases once a year, including evacuating the train in the tunnel," Mr Hartig said, "But not for a fire."

Suspicion has fallen on the electric cabling and another possibility is that the spark came from one of the batteries fitted underneath the carriages. The passengers could do nothing to put out the flames: the two fire-extinguishers aboard were locked up in the driver's cabins at the front and back.

Witnesses, including some of the 12 survivors, reported seeing smoke followed by fire at the back of the last carriage, possibly in the unmanned driver's cabin. A skier claims to have seen the train disappear into the tunnel lapped by flames. It has also been reported that passengers noticed the smoke and tried to alert the driver, sitting at the front of the train, by mobile telephone.

What happened after the first sign of fire still remains completely unexplained. The driver had reported the fire and was ordered to stop.

The funicular train halted, but the doors remained shut. The 12 survivors had to kick through the windows to escape.

The most important question facing the investigation is the status of the two airlocks, above and below the tunnel. The operators confirmed yesterday that they should have shut automatically behind the two trains travelling in opposite directions. They would have prevented the "chimney effect", which is believed to have produced a fireball gushing upwards at 100km an hour. But the two airlocks were open when the first firefighters appeared on the scene.

As Austria searches for answers, the village of Kaprun, struck by the second disaster this year, is in mourning.

The ski-lifts dangle motionless, the tourists have fled, and the locals have withdrawn to their houses, trying to comfort family and friends. Only the noise of helicopters, hovering above the valley as they ferry the dead to Salzburg, break the eerie silence.

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