British ski instructor died in tunnel fire

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The Independent Online

A British ski instructor was among the victims of the Austrian mountain tunnel disaster, the Foreign Office said today.

A British ski instructor was among the victims of the Austrian mountain tunnel disaster, the Foreign Office said today.

As recovery teams continued to remove the bodies of some 170 skiers and snowboarders from the remains of the funicular railway, it was confirmed that at least one was British.

He had been living and working in Austria and had an Austrian wife, the Foreign Office said. The man, who has not been named, originally came from the Dorset area.

Recovery teams have removed the first bodies of at least 159 people killed after a cable car caught fire as it pulled them through a mountain tunnel toward the ski slopes.

With tunnel finally free of smoke Sunday afternoon, more than a day after the fire that destroyed the Kitzsteinhorn cable car, rescuers from the Austrian army and fire service were able to enter the tunnel from the top end to avoid any risk of the ill-fated car slipping downhill.

What they found exposed them to what Salzburg provincial governor Franz Schausberger called "a heavy psychological toll."

"It must be said that the salvage operation is extremely difficult," Schausberger told reporters. "It also must be said that it won't be possible to identify the victims by traditional means."

The bodies were being flown Monday to the provincial capital, Salzburg, for DNA tests.

"The victims are next to, in and under the train," Schausberger said.

About 110 recovery workers were at the site Monday and planned to continue their efforts round the clock. But Franz Lang, chief of Salzburg's criminal police, said that the teams would have to be constantly changed due to the nature of the work.

Although uncertainty continued over the total number of people who boarded the cable car Saturday morning, authorities said that the identities of 159 victims were near certain.

Among them were 52 Austrians; 42 Germans; 10 Japanese; eight Americans and three Slovenes. Authorities had names but no nationalities for the remaining 44 missing people. It was believed that the car, with a capacity of 180 people, was full.

"We're reckoning with a number of victims somewhere under 175," Lang said.

"These were the victims that could be relatively easily recovered," he said.

Investigators reported that 29 bodies had been recovered and had begun to arrive in Salzburg to a morgue where forensics experts could do DNA tests.

Lang said that large parts of the car had melted, making it difficult to separate the bodies from the car itself.

"We will need some time for this work," he said

It is unclear how long DNA tests could take. Under the best of circumstances, such tests would take three to four days per person, Lang said.

Many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition and authorities believe it could be weeks before they are identified.

Officials said 18 people - 12 of whom saved themselves from the cable car after they broke its window with a ski and six who had been waiting at the top of the tunnel - survived the disaster. One of the survivors was in serious condition with damage to the lungs. The others were released from hospital during Sunday.

One survivor, Gerhard Hanetseder from the town Gallspach in Upper Austria, told state radio that smoke entered the cabin of the cable car soon after it began its ascent. After the car entered the tunnel, Hanetseder noticed the fire.

"Then panic spread. We tried desperately to get the doors open. The panic got ever worse. In the meantime the entire cabin was on fire," he said. "By chance, a few of the passengers, using ski boots or ski poles or other implements tried to smash the Plexiglas windows.

"I saw in the last minute someone jump out and then I tried to grab my daughter, I gave her a push. And then I also somehow got out."

Volunteers had drawn up lists with names of the approximately 2,500 people who had made it up to the glacier slope on the cable car before the fire and who subsequently returned to their accommodations.

Those missing were presumed killed by flames and acrid smoke inside the car or in the tunnel while trying to escape. The cause of the fire remained unclear.

"We're investigating as far as the cause is concerned - really in every direction," Lang said.

Grieving townsfolk gathered in Kaprun's church for a Mass focusing on the tragedy. Some among them had feared the worst until Sunday.

"My son is, thank God, all right," said Gottfried Nindl. He said that the boy had planned to go up with the car on Saturday after sleeping over with friends but didn't, because, "they slept too long."

Later Sunday, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and his deputy, Susanne Riess-Passer, joined relatives of the victims for a private memorial service at the site of the disaster, which remained sealed off.

"Sometimes we just have to live with our own powerlessness," Schuessel said later.

"We have an extremely high level of security and safety," he insisted. "But we can only do what is possible."

Schausberger said that a majority of those killed were "undoubtedly young people." Also among the dead were 32 people from the Upper Austrian city of Wels, including 13 municipal employees.

Among the missing Americans was a family of four, including two children. Two others serving in the Army were also unaccounted for - a couple who were engaged last week.

The Austrian government declared Saturday and Sunday national days of mourning. A national memorial service is to be held Friday in Salzburg.

The cable car, built in 1974 and one of the first of its kind involving a mountain tunnel, caught fire while thousands of people were enjoying late fall sunshine and balmy temperatures on the glacier slopes on what was the opening day of the region's ski season.

The disaster was believed to be the worst involving skiers being transported by cable-pulled car to skiing slopes. The death toll surpassed the number killed the Italian ski resort of Cavalese in 1976, when 42 people died after a cable carrying suspended cable cars snapped.

Among the dead were three people who were waiting in a passenger area at the tunnel's upward end and died of smoke inhalation, Schausberger said. Also reported killed was a cable car attendant in an otherwise empty car that was going toward the valley as the one carrying the other victims was going up in the tunnel.

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